Books That Have Shaped How I Think


In The Meaning of Culture, John Cowper Powys makes the point that the difference between education and culture is that culture is the incorporation of music, art, literature, and philosophy not just into your library or your CV but into who you are. He talks too about the interplay of culture and life, the way that what we read can enrich what we experience, and what we experience can enrich what we read.

To make his point, I always like to cite an experience I had when I was fourteen and had just read The Golden Warrior, Hope Muntz's classic novel of Harold, last of the Saxon kings. Harold's story fired my imagination, particularly the idea of the compact between a leader and his people, the compact that led Harold to march south to face William the Conqueror at Hastings, despite having just repelled an invasion by his half brother Tostig and his Viking allies up in Yorkshire. Advisors urged him to wait, but William was raping and pillaging, and Harold made a forced march to glorious defeat, keeping faith with his subjects. While reading this stirring book, I was vacationing in the Lake District of England. We swam every day at the swimming hole. But it wasn't just any swimming hole. This was the headwaters of the River Derwent, the river that ran red with blood when Harold defeated the Viking invasion. Book and place were together seared into my memory and sense of values, each giving meaning and resonance to the other.

So there, I've told you about two books that made a huge impression on me. Sometimes, as with The Meaning of Culture, the book is a part of my regular mental toolbox. And with others, as with The Golden Warrior, there may only be a half-remembered concept from decades ago. Here are a few of the books that have played a large role in my life:

The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching), translated by Witter Bynner. My personal religious philosophy, stressing the rightness of what is, if only we can accept it. Most people who know me have heard me quote from this book. "Seeing as how nothing is outside the vast, wide-meshed net of heaven, who is there to say just how it is cast?"

The Palm at the End of the Mind, by Wallace Stevens. Stevens is my favorite poet, and this is the most commonly available collection of his poems. His meditations on the relationship of language and reality have entranced me for more than thirty years. I keep reading the same poems, and finding more and more in them. Also someone I quote often. Special favorites are "Sunday Morning," "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," and "Esthetique du Mal." From the last of these:

One might have thought of sight, but who could think of what it sees, for all the ill it sees? Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound, But the dark italics it could not propound. And out of what one sees and hears and out of what one feels, who could have thought to make so many selves, so many sensuous worlds, as if the air, the mid-day air, were swarming with the metaphysical changes that occur, merely in living as and where we live.

Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson. Johnson, author of the first major dictionary of the English language, is one of my heroes. His work can be considered an extended meditation on Milton's phrase from Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." The quote from Johnson I subject people to most often is from his short novel Rasselas, in which a character remarks something like this: "I consider the pyramids to be a monument to the insufficiency of all human enjoyments. He who has built for use till use is supplied must begin to build for vanity." The pyramids are actually quite a wonderful thing, but there's a lot of wisdom in this analysis. Johnson's work is a wonderful reminder that our minds have prodigious energy that must be focused on the right objects, and that much human pathology comes from having insufficient objects for our striving.

In that regard, I always like to quote from Rilke's poem "The Man Watching," which I encountered in Robert Bly's collection of Rilke translations. The concluding passage, which talks about Jacob wrestling with the angel, losing, but coming away strengthened from the fight, goes something like this: "What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater things." (I've gone back and checked, and that's not an accurate rendition of Bly's translation, but it is the way I retell the advice to myself and to my friends.)

Colin Wilson's The Outsider is another book that addresses the same theme: the untapped power of the mind and its constant battle with the world, to make sense of it, or be broken by it. But the book is also significant for me because at 23, reading this book, I wanted to write something as good as Wilson had done at that age. (For a wonderful story recapitulating Wilson's ideas, I also recommend his takeoff on H.P. Lovecraft, The Mind Parasites.) Wilson also shaped my relationship to books. So many critics write about literature and philosophy as a dead thing, an artifact. Wilson writes about it as a conversation with another mind about what is true.

An Introduction to Realistic Philosophy, by John Wild. This book introduced me to the profundity of Aristotle. Virtue is the control of the appetites by right reason, the formation of good habits, or as my brother James once summarized it, "Virtue is knowing what you really want." It was reading this book during high school that convinced me that philosophy was meant to be used, a guide to a better life, not a dry subject rehearsing the thoughts of dead men.

Science and Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski. OK, General Semantics was the 30s equivalent of pop-psychology in the 70s, but there are some great concepts there. "The map is not the territory." The idea is that people get stuck in concepts and don't go back to observation. My friend George Simon applied General Semantics to psychology, and gave me a grounding in how to see people and to acknowledge what I saw that is the bedrock of my personal philosophy to this day. There are many popular introductions to General Semantics on the market, and also a fun science-fiction book, A.E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A.

Rissa Kerguelen, by F.M. Busby. A science-fiction book I read at about the time I was starting my company, and that influenced me deeply. One key idea is the role of entrepreneurship as a "subversive force." In a world dominated by large companies, it is the smaller companies that keep freedom alive, with economics at least one of the battlegrounds. This book gave me the courage to submerge myself in the details of a fundamentally trivial business (technical writing) and to let go of my earlier hopes of writing deep books that would change the world.

Islandia, by Austin Tappan Wright. A utopian novel written in the 1930s, about an imaginary country where technology has not yet hastened the pace of life, and where people find time to nurture relationships and the land they live on. Also a novel of "the long view." My first Sun workstation was named Isla, and the dream of living on the land was a part of my move to Sebastopol. Physical labor is a wonderful antidote to the life of the mind.

The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. I discovered this series of six difficult, complex historical novels about a character roving the world at the turn of the seventeenth century as my company was passing the critical 50-person inflection point. Lymond is a brilliant leader who isn't afraid of the opprobrium of his peers--he does the right thing, seeing further than those around him. He was a hero I aspired to emulate. The books are also just darn cool--the amount of historical scholarship packed into these stories is truly remarkable.

Dune, by Frank Herbert. When I got this book out of the library at age 12, my father remarked, "It's sinful that so large a book should be devoted to science fiction." Little was he to know that this book, full of wonderful concepts about how to come to grips with a world out of our control, would play so large a role in his son's life. After I graduated from college, a friend who was editing a series of critical monographs about science fiction asked me if I'd like to write a book about Frank Herbert. I agreed, and it was that choice that set me on the path to becoming a writer. My first book, Frank Herbert, is online at In the course of writing the book, I got far deeper into Herbert's ideas than I had reading his books growing up. The core message of all Herbert's work is that we can't control the future, but we can control our response to it, surfing the edge of change and risk.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn introduced the term "paradigm shift" to describe the changeover from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy. But the book is far more than a classic in the history of science. It's also a book that emphasizes how what we already believe shapes what we see, what we allow ourselves to think. I've always tried to separate seeing itself from the stories I tell myself about what I see. Pattern recognition is impeded if you are trying to overlay an existing pattern on the facts rather than letting the facts sit quietly until they tell their own story. That's General Semantics again.

As you can see, there are no books about technology or business on that core list! A lot of literature and philosophy instead. I apply myself to computers, social issues, and business with a toolset developed in another world. But that's not to say that there are no books about science and technology that haven't had a profound influence on me. Here are a few:

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, by Larry Lessig. One of my all-time favorite quotes is Edwin Schlossberg's "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think." This book gave me a whole new set of tools for thinking about the complex interplay between four forces: government laws and regulations, social norms, technology, and markets. Lessig makes a simple but profound case that you can't think of technical issues in isolation from their legal and cultural context.

The Unix Programming Environment, by Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike. In addition to its articulation of the Unix tools philosophy that is so dear to my heart, the writing is a model of clarity and elegance. As a technical writer, I aspired to be as transparent as Kernighan.

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. I wouldn't say this book influenced me, since my principles of writing were established long before I read it. However, it does capture many things that I believe about effective writing.

I don't think I've ever read a business book cover to cover, but here are a few whose concepts have struck a chord or given me a vocabulary that helps me to see things in a new way or just to give context to my own ideas:

The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen. An analysis of why great companies fail, because innovation often requires throwing out everything that has made you successful in the past. Disruptive technologies are often born on the fringes, in markets where worse is better.

Built to Last, by James Collins and Jerry Porras. The idea here is that great companies aren't afraid to have strong values. In fact, their cult-like values are what make them stand out from the norm.

Positioning, and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Anyone who wants to start a business with impact needs to read these books.

Building a personal culture out of what you read and see and hear doesn't just end with books. I find moments in movies, in songs, and in pop culture that have also become part of my personal vocabulary for seeing and responding to the world. So, for example, in the mostly forgotten movie Joe Versus the Volcano, there is a scene in which Joe, played by Tom Hanks, is dying of thirst on a raft after a shipwreck. He sees the moonrise, and says, "Oh my god, I forgot!" and has his faith in life renewed by the sight. So often, I see something special that returns me to myself, and I think of those words.