Friday, March 26, 2010

Books that Broke my Brain

This meme is going around the net. Interesting to see so many right wingers, and shocking how many actually cite “The Bell Curve.” I would have expected Rand, but Murray? Yes, many on the right aspire to racism. They think they are brave for being willing to acknowledge this in public. ("It’s about the skin color, man. Yeah. It makes you stupid. It's like, scientific.")

Not sure why anyone else would care, but here’s mine while I’m slowly emerging from many days of bronchitis brain fog. It was kind of fun to think about. Interesting how few non-fiction books I can think of that really stand out. Self-revealing--not always in good ways.

The Dialectic Imagination—Maxine Greene
I spent a good chunk of my doctoral program following back the citations of this book and trying to figure out where she got these fascinating ideas. Now I think she really doesn’t get the “public” at all, for all that she is a master of the aesthetic. 99.9% of the time the public is more a sausage-factory than an inspiring self-factory, however much she might want it to be otherwise.

Origins of Totalitarianism—Hannah Arendt
People usually cite the Human Condition, but the last half of OT is more profound in many ways (although you can’t really “get” OT without HC and maybe On Revolution too). Greene led me to Arendt, who I also decided doesn’t get the public, although she is profound enough for a dozen political philosophers. The work I’ve done on Dewey was really an effort to figure out Arendt, even though I don’t cite her (or even read her) anymore.

Reveille for Radicals—Saul Alinsky
A theorist hiding in a populist. Too arrogant for his own good, too certain (in his public speech) to be sufficiently self-critical, and too willing to lie about his accomplishments in service to his own ego. And yet, he provided the best shorthand vision of political empowerment so far written in America, laying out what Greene and Arendt didn’t want to hear. His followers turned his principles into rules, killed the dangerous creativity, and now ACORN’s just fallen to rubble. Time to take some risks.

Nova—Samuel Delaney
Taught me what literary science fiction could do.

Cannery Row—John Steinbeck
The best book ever written about nothing.

The Moviegoer—Walker Percy
The second best book ever written about nothing. An attempt to turn a philosophical engagement with Kierkegaard into a novel. Should have been a total failure.

Citizen of the Galaxy—Robert A. Heinlein
Saved me on a trip to the crazy grandmother. What a “sense of wonder” means. Could have picked others.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang—Kate Wilhelm
Not actually the book, but really the person who, with her husband Damon Knight, took in a wet-under-the-ears teenager and taught him how to write.

Maybe Discipline and Punish? Domination and the Arts of Resistance?


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Okay, I'll play...although I don't know that we should each make our own separate post about this. Here are the ten most influential books I can come up with right now off the top of my head:

Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, a book that I read as a teenager that has forever remained in the base of my brain as an affirmation that humans are animals and often (always?) act as such.

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections: this spiritual autobiography gave me, as a very young man, permission to take "spirituality" seriously, even though I think religions are mostly about power and domination.

John Dewey, Art as Experience: taught me that the aesthetic qualities of experience are more important than the cognitive ones, both for education and for life.

David L. Norton, Personal Destinies, the book that convinced me that paying attention to Joe Gauld's concept of "unique potential" was worthy scholarship.

Henry Perkins, An Imperfect Panacea, a history of American education that focuses on the degree to which the core purposes of schools are so often diluted by the demand that they handle other social problems.

Arthur Powell, et al. The Shopping Mall High School, a book in which the authors describe how the educational system really works to influence who "wins" and who doesn't. (I read this book together with Ted Sizer's Horace's equally revealing book that also offers the benefit of pointing toward some solutions to the ways that high schools get away from their core intellectual mission.)

Thomas F. Green et al., Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System, a wonderful analysis of the ways that educational systems can be expected to evolve over time...I believe the principles enunciated there have pretty much proven to hold true in most cases.

Duncan Kennedy, Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A polemic Against the System, a little book that convinced me that my decision to drop out of Harvard Law School wasn't as ignoble as some people thought at the time.

Ian Pears, An Instance of the Finger Post, an amazing historical novel in which the story is told from three different perspectives...leaves one being pretty sure that we have no idea what's really going on much of the time.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, simply the best novel of all time? Has the added benefit of showing in a viscerally resonating way the social forces that create and reinforce poverty.

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