Defining influence is tricky. We have all undoubtedly been influenced by many people; in particular parents, teachers, friends and others we spend time with. Yet when talking with others about about those views are insightful, ‘hang around with my friends’ is not particularly useful, and parents or teachers are even less accessible. So we think of public figures.
In coming up with this list, I’ve focused on those who’ve helped to bring particular issues into focus, or to shed light on tricky conundrums. Most of those chosen are people whose work I often wish to point others towards, or who I quote (or paraphrase) when discussing an issue. There are no doubt many others who could be on this list – and perhaps some that I will wish I had added if I think of them tomorrow – but the list is not intended to be exhaustive, simply indicative and of interest.
Without further ado, and in alphabetical order:
- Scott Alexander. Writer of the best blog on the internet, Scott’s output includes deeply insightful (and often long) pieces into some of the biggest debates in contemporary society, entertaining non-fiction book reviews and highly detailed, heavily-evidenced analyses of phenomena such as cost disease.
- G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton’s train of thought is at times elliptical and darting; he is also prodigious enough that there is much that one does not agree with. Yet he always brings a fresh way of thinking, brings deep and powerful insight and has a way with quotes that penetrates directly to the heart of the matter.
- Jonathan Haidt. Haidt’s theory on six foundations of morality makes a lot of sense, both objectively and in its applications to some of the political disagreements of the day. Like Orwell, someone I need to read more of.
- Tim Harford. Harford’s Undercover Economist is still one of the best primers I know in basic micro-economic theory, without which a lot of things don’t make much sense. His regular columns continue to be interesting and thought-provoking.
- Douglas Hofstadter. His Godel, Escher, Bach is a tour de force that introduced me to to many new concepts and his writings on everything from linguistics to game theory are hugely insightful. His model of consciousness described in I am a Strange Loop is still basically how I think of consciousness.
- Daniel Kahneman. In Thinking Fast and Slow Kahneman brutally exposes the dozens of cognitive biases and predilections we’re prone to. Essential reading to understand how others, and you yourself, may make decisions.
- C. S. Lewis. More than any other author, Lewis showed me that Christianity is not nonsensical, even if he ultimately failed to convince me it was true. His allegories are outstanding (Narnia and Screwtape Letters in particular) and his thinking on not-explicitly Christian issues, including wider morality, justice and education profoundly insightful.
- George Orwell. Both 1984 and Animal Farm unfortunately seem perennially relevant and are packed full of allusion, prescient technology and social trends even where the details change. I’ve not read as much as I should of his non-fiction, but the snatches I know seem tremendously apt.
- C. P. Snow. His descriptions of civil service life, as well as broader interactions amongst those wielding influence in public life and academia, strongly influenced my perception of what makes an ideal civil servant, even if reality sometimes departs from this.
- Neal Stephenson. A slightly odd one to include, but while much of what he writes is fiction, his thoughts on post-nation ‘clades’, competition between cultures, modernity, morality and superficiality are highly relevant to many of today’s debates.
Who’s not on the list?
It’s interesting to reflect on who is absent. Pure scientists – Hawking, Dawkins, Feynman and so on – are notably not there, despite having read, enjoyed and often recommended books such as A Brief History of Time and The Selfish Gene. To me it seems that these informed me of fact, rather than influenced me, but to some that may seem like drawing a false distinction between the natural scientists and people such as Harford or Kahneman.
Secondly, the majority of writers are modern with Chesterton, the oldest, just over a century old. This is harder to explain. I’ve read Plato, Voltaire, Sun Tsu, Machiavelli, Aquinas and others, and often found their works interesting and insightful, yet none have made the list. I think it may be that many of these writer’s greatest insights have been so absorbed into our body of knowledge, have become so accepted, that it is hard to attribute them to that particular person – so that while reading older writers gives important context, it is more often those more modern who seem to address the specific issues that we are grappling with today. A final reflection is that with the exception or Orwell and Hofstadter, all are ones I encountered substantively above the age of 18.
There is one collection of writers, however, that deserve to be included, though it is not possible to do so in the arbitrary format I’ve chosen here. That is the vast assemblage of fiction authors, who I’ve read in far greater numbers than I’ve read non-fiction and from a much earlier age. Whether it’s Tolkien, Herriot, McCaffrey, Kipling, McKinley, Dahl, Robinson, Pratchett, Christie, Buchan, Austen, Dumas, L’Amour, Twain, Auel, Wouk or Verne, or many others, the collective worldview from what I’ve read has had more influence than any individual who can be named. I’ve always said you can learn as much from fiction as non-fiction, and undoubtedly a large part of that is a greater pespective.