Five books that influenced me the most

As an avid reader, I came across a few gems over the years that profoundly influenced my thinking and changed the way I look at the world.

Books, as a medium, are amazing to me. They connect intellectuals across space, time and culture. You can read books and pamphlets originating in ancient Rome or Greece in conjunction with contemporary literature and find common ground. Human nature doesn’t change, and the common themes our myths, stories and non-fiction have revolved around over the centuries are proof of that (to me at least).

I spent the past few years reading and listening to a lot of audiobooks in my spare time. Here are some of the most honorable mentions, that I would like to share with you:

Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires) - Michel Houellebecq

Critics have labeled Houellebecq’s novels as “vulgar” and “pornographic”, he is accused of inciting racism and misogyny. I have to disregard these claims, only feeble minds would reach a verdict as crude as this.

Along with “Atomised”, “Submission” are the only two books in my life I couldn’t put away until they were finished. No other writer was able to draw me into their work, into the world they created as much as Houellebecq did. His writing style is incredibly vivid, honest and true. His political and sociological analysis is pure genius. The characters he describes feel more than real, hyperreal, yet still part of his very own nature. Houellebecq is like a painter drawing a very intriguing picture, grotesque but fascinating, giving you insights on questions about the nature of your being which you never dared ask.

The story is about two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno. Michel is a brilliant molecular biologist with little interest in sex or human society in general. Bruno, by contrast, a sexually frustrated, middle aged high school teacher with a harsh abusive upbringing at a boarding school. The story is about sex, love and loss and about the failure of individualist society to deliver on the naive promises and implied advantages we’ve been made to believe.

Turning 30 soon, the story struck a familiar chord with me. I plan on reading “The Map and the Territory” next.

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s books are dense and melancholic. The stories carry a sort of melancholic purity in their conduct. Few people understand human nature more profoundly than he did.

At age 28 he was sentenced to 4 years in a Siberian prison camp, followed by six years of compulsory military service in exile. He was a drinker and a gambler and was in a financial hardship for most of his life. Yet he was able to write some of the most significant works of literature the world has ever seen.

Crime and Punishment is about a poor youth, a highly intelligent university student, living in St. Petersburg of the 1860s. He decides to commit a murder in order to escape his financial troubles, whereby he becomes entangled in a web of psychological terror, guilt and fear.

This masterpiece may very well rival any contemporary thriller.

Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a best-selling book published during 2011 by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureate Daniel Kahneman. It was the 2012 winner of the National Academies Communication Award for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics of behavioral science, engineering and medicine.

The most intriguing feature of the book, is the introduction to the concept of two modes of thought - fast thinking and slow thinking, defined as System 1 and System 2 respectively. The book delineates rational and non-rational motivations/triggers associated with each type of thinking process, and how they complement each other.

Regarding the conventional economic topics covered in the book is a relatively high overlap with two other books I read, namely “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner and “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” by Philip E. Tetlock. I’d argue that Kahneman’s book is the best of the three, but the others are very well worth a read as well.

Basic Economics - Thomas Sowell

As one of Milton Friedman’s contemporaries, Thomas Sowell has been dispelling economic and political myths and biases since the 1970s. Interestingly enough, the same political discussions that we tend to engage in, have been around for decades. You can find videos of Sowell debating the gender wage gap with feminists in the 1970s, as well as a myriad of other topics.

Basic Economics is a very comprehensive guide to understanding practical Economics, explaining the workings on an immense number of practical and historical examples, how it influences our daily lives, as well as the impact of public policy. The book contains no fancy charts, just words. Taking up the tradition of the Austrian and later Chicago school of thought, Sowell’s take on economics is a very pragmatic one, fairly easy to understand.

If you’re looking for a more condensed guide to improve your economic understanding “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt is a great choice.

Thomas Sowell has recently turned 90 and he’s still writing. One of his other works I cherish a lot is “Conflict of Visions”, which analyzes the fundamental psychological differences in the two main branches of contemporary politics. A true eye opener.

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - William B. Irvine

Aside from a few YouTube videos, “The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” was my first introduction to Stoicism. William B. Irvine, professor of philosophy at Wright State University, takes up the task of explaining the philosophical branch by referencing text and anecdotes of four of the greatest stoics in ancient history, namely Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, as well as a few others. The book is a practical guide on how to integrate stoic wisdom and philosophy into one’s daily life.

“The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday is a great addition to the book, as it contains a short 1-2 page anecdote with an implied practice for each day of the year.