What a title for an essay. At first, I had planned to focus on 20 books. That being too difficult, I decided on another route: 20 authors. There’s no way I could truly stop at 20 authors either, so I’ll probably throw in some other names along the way. Anyway, suffice it to say that the number 20 in the title of this essay is totally arbitrary. I had to begin and stop somewhere. Moreover, the authors that I discuss here are non-fiction writers. My list would be completely different if I had discussed those fiction prose writers and poets who have impacted my thinking. To construct a list combining fiction and non-fiction writers would be too difficult as well. And given my mental laziness, I like to avoid such difficulties where possible. Having categories for writers helps me do that. The list given here is for this category; of course, there are other categories. And not only is non-fiction the category explicated here, but I also have grouped the authors according to their worldview or other underlying assumptions, adding, in some cases, a subset of authors. Also it’s important that readers understand that I have not provided an ordinal system via the numerical list here from one-to-twenty. It’s simply a nominal list that could take any form under different discussions of these various writers.
The authors who make this list run the gamut of world views: Christian, atheists, agnostics, anarchists, etc. I will state straightforwardly that I am a Christian who found something valuable in all these writers, as well as others like them. What is common among these authors is that they expressly value the importance of worldview and living a life consistent with one’s worldview. Hence, I believe that one of the most important ways we go about the art and skill of living is seeking to clarify and understand our personal worldview and living it consistently the best we can. That is not an easy task, nor one that anyone, most likely, does perfectly. Yet these authors explore the imperative of deeply searching out one’s values and seeking to live them out in day-to-day life. There are countless authors I have read who feel the same, and their absence from this list today is not intended as a neglect of the impact they, too, have had on my thinking.
Finally, this essay is a survey or overview of these authors and their writings, touching on how they have influenced my thinking. As such, it is not an in-depth study of either the authors or their writings.
Authors 1 – 3: C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness
As a Christian, these authors helped me realize the importance the world of ideas can have for believers. There are camps within the Christian community, unfortunately, who tend to preach that writings of philosophers, artists, and thinkers in general, are works we should at best be leery of, and at worst not broach at all. These three authors put that legalistic way of thinking to rest for me, placing it in a well-deserved grave. Most people probably know C. S. Lewis from his fiction novels, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’s impact on me, however, stems from his non-fiction writings, particularly, The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. Through his writings, Lewis evidenced the courage of his convictions that not only was he a Christian, but also he was a thinking one, a human being who had struggles regarding his faith, and one who could discuss his beliefs and values within the world of philosophical ideas. He was known, respected, and admired by many from various walks of life.
Francis Schaeffer crystallized the importance of worldview for me as a Christian, particularly with his works, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason. Before reading his works, I first attended a conference he held entitled, How Should We Then Live?, a title of one of his other books I read. Schaeffer’s name, particularly in the late 1960’s and throughout the next couple of decades, was well-known by seekers all over the world who were searching for some kind of purpose and meaning in life. These nomads in life would travel to L’Abri, Switzerland to Schaeffer’s cottage in the Swiss Alps and converse with him about various ideas. Even those who disagreed with him highly respected him as courteous, kind, and concerned for their well-being.
Os Guinness in his works, The Dust of Death and The Call, likewise solidified for me, not only the importance of worldview as a Christian, but the importance of personally seeking out one’s relationship with a personal God. The sweeping panorama of The Dust of Death regarding the 1960’s and its aftermath still remains a turning point for someone like me, who grew up during those times. Presently, I’m finishing one of his more recent works, The Long Journey Home, regarding different worldviews’ responses to the reality of evil.
A subset within this first category of authors would includes such writers as James Sire (The Universe Next Door; Habits of the Mind), Mark Noll (Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), and Dallas Willard and Robert Foster, both who have written on the Christian disciplines.
Authors 4 – 6: Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard
Having travelled too many political inroads over the years, I have reached what I feel to be a resting place, although one still evolving, in anarchism. (Anarchism requires clarification and proper definition, which is not the purpose of this essay.). Suffice it to say that I grew up a traditional conservative without really exploring what that meant. In the late 1960’s, I gravitated with many toward leftist liberalism and a flirtation with Marxism. In the 1980’s, I returned to a more Reganesque conservatism, and eventually to Classical Liberalism and libertarian anarchism. Writers who influenced me along the way were those within the school of Austrian Economics, such as Ludwig von Mises. As an economist, he definitely would be on this list, had I not narrowed it down to 20 names. But the three I have listed here most definitely shaped my thinking toward a proper understanding of anarchism. Simply put, I have come to despise politics altogether; I do not view the political realm as having much of an answer to anything important; and if someone can truly listen to most political speeches these days and not want to vomit, then more power to them.
Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man spoke to my core regarding not only what biography and autobiography should encompass, but also provided a path for living with its basic aim to live, not because of, but in spite of, the State. Although such a way of living is more and more difficult to traverse these days, Nock provides evidence of one possible way of carrying it out. The consummate anarchist, Nock never bent to nor worshipped the State, and chose to live his life via his own path. Although I might not totally agree with every premise he held to, I admire the courage of his convictions and willingness to live consistently by his ideas. His book, Myth of A Guilty Nation, led me to rethink the entire political structure of the State, and particularly the Military Industrial Complex, which I no longer trust.
Frank Chodorov, although an admirer of Nock, cut his own path as a thinker. He expanded on Nock’s thought in The Rise and Fall of Society, in which he contrasts society with the State. Chodorov’s collection of essays, Fugitive Essays, covers a gamut of topics regarding political and social commentary. His work, Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, pretty much sums up my feelings toward the State. His essays and other works provided one more nail in the coffin for Statism from my perspective, turning my thinking toward a more anarchist position. Chodorov, by the way, is an excellent writer, expressing ideas in a clear, straightforward, and concise manner.
Murray Rothbard has written several important works in the area of economics, including a two-volume history of economic thought, and provided an Austrian perspective on the Great Depression in America’s Great Depression. However, it is his work on natural rights and natural law, The Ethics of Liberty, that has influenced me the most. Although I do not agree with every premise he holds, I find him and these other authors to be birds of a common feather with whom I’m comfortable to travel.
A subset of authors who fit well with these three would include Ludwig von Mises (Human Action), Henry Hazlitt (Economics in One Lesson), and H. L. Mencken (various collections of essays).
Authors 7 -8: Jacque Barzun and David Gress
I thoroughly enjoy historical overviews that provide a panoramic view of the history of ideas and philosophical movements. Jacque Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence is one work that most definitely scratches that itch for me. His magnus opus, covering “500 years of Western Cultural life” is the work of a consummate historian of ideas and cultural critic. More than anything else, this ambitious work shows who we are in the West, emerging from the past 500 years to the present.
David Gress’s From Plato to NATO is a similar work. In today’s academics where the West is criticized along various multicultural lines, Gress argues that the West is a combination of successes of great ideas and failures to live up to those ideas. It is a mistake to try to sum up the West as either a bastion of liberal thought or a horror shop of fascist oppression.
Authors 9 – 10: Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn
A scientist, I am not, but I do enjoy works on the philosophy of science. Several of Karl Popper’s works have piqued my interests, including Conjectures and Refutations, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and The Open Society and Its Enemies. I particularly like Popper’s arguments for indeterminism (anti-deterministic) and his interactionist stance on the mind-body question. Above all, I like Popper’s humility regarding our knowledge – that what we don’t know is infinitely greater than what we do know. Some would argue, however, that Popper was not very humble in his interaction and debates with others.
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions gave us the much-used – and probably overused – notion of paradigm shift. His work challenged the logical positivist view of science, and some believe he was progenitor to the postmodern critique of science. Both Kuhn and Popper were critics of logical positivism, and Popper, indeed, is known for his critique of the verification factor that defines logical positivism.
A subset of authors within this category would include Imre Lakatos and Michael Feyerbend.
Authors 11- 12: Cal Newport and Robert Greene
Recent readings of So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Newport) and Mastery (Greene) have altered my thinking toward what Newport calls the passion hypothesis. Although I still believe in some sense of a calling toward our work or career, I have come to heavily favor the emphasis that both Newport and Greene place on skills development. Neither author minimizes the place of passion in our lives, but they do impress upon readers the importance that passion about work comes through developing skills at what we do – skills developed over a long period of time involving patience, trial-and-error, and hard work. I have written reviews of both these books here and here on this website.
A subset of authors within this category would include Daniel Pink (Drive), Charles Duhigg (Habit), and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers).
Authors 13 – 15: Anneli Rufus, Susan Cain, and Diana Senechal
I am a loner. There, I’ve said it! No, seriously. I like being alone, I do not like crowds, and I enjoy quietness. In the DSM (that monstrosity of pathology of every walk of life) we have what is designated as Social Phobia, to let all shy people know that they’re “sick” and they need fixed. Although I do not want to minimize the emotional pain that comes with what is called performance anxiety, and the fact that people want to work through such anxieties, our culture is one that over-values extraversion. What it undervalues or does not understand, it labels as pathological. These three authors speak to that imbalance.
Anneli Rufus (The Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto) addresses her childhood experiences of being labeled different and weird because she was shy, liked being alone, and would rather spend time with herself and her interests than with larger crowds of relatives or friends. She makes a wonderful distinction between a true loner – someone who relishes being alone, and one who is lonely or feels rejected by others.
Susan Cain’s Quiet reflects the problems that introverts and shy people experience in our culture. She emphasizes the problem that those who are introverted or more shy than others tend to be viewed as having something wrong with them. It never enters an extravert’s mind that perhaps many introverts don’t care to change who they are.
Diana Senechal’s The Republic of Noise applies the introvert-extravert problem to education. She highlights the over-emphasis on group learning and groupthink in today’s public schools. These group activities overlook those students who enjoy being alone, study and learn better when they are alone, and are made to feel that something is wrong with them when they would rather work alone.
All three of these books resonated with me and who I am. And when I really feel ornery, I can fall back now on these works and – not necessarily tongue-in-cheek – let people know when they try to involve me in groupthink: Leave me the hell alone, and let me work the way I please – Thank you.
Authors 16 – 17: Viktor Frankl and Albert Camus
There are several existential writers who I enjoy reading and have gleaned much from their works. The philosophy of existentialism, to a large extent, meshes with who I am, although I would place tenets of the philosophy within a theistic framework, which would cause some existentialists to shudder, I’m sure. A couple of writers who heavily influenced me over the years are Viktor Frankl and Albert Camus.
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a hauntingly triumphant tale of one man’s struggle with the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Dachau. His struggle to find purpose and meaning in these seemingly meaningless and arbitrary events, gave rise to Frankl’s Logotherapy, an approach that helps people find meaning in their suffering. The tale is not only immensely human, given Frankl’s experience, survival, and loss of his family, but it is also inspirational, in that we see a man come through such a bitter experience without becoming embittered himself. I have reviewed this work and the life of Frankl elsewhere on this website, here.
Many readers are most likely familiar with Camus’s novels, The Stranger and The Plague, or perhaps his popular Myth of Sisyphus. The non-fiction work that has endeared me to this writer is his Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. In this work, Camus deals with a variety of topics from fighting in the French underground during Nazi occupation of France, to seeking to negotiate the warring factions connected with the Algerian terrorists activities. I admire Camus, not necessarily for all the basic premises he holds, but because he seeks passionately to be consistent with his philosophy of life. James Sire tells an interesting story regarding Camus and his yearly conversations with a missionary who worked in France every summer. Is it possible that Camus was considering evidence for the Christian faith near his untimely death?
A subset within this category would include authors such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre, along with contemporary therapists such as Irvin Yalom, Rollo May, and Emmy van Deurzen.
Author 18: Wendy McElroy
Wendy is one of those authors who could be easily placed in the group with Nock, Chodorov, and Rothbard. Although she’s influenced by Rothbard and other anarchists, she has cut her own path as a writer, so I consider her separately. I first came to know of Wendy’s writings via her website, Ifeminist.com. Her independent feminism is based on libertarian principles and resonates with my views toward the State.
Her two works, The Art of Being Free and XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography drew me not only to her ideas, but also led me to admire how magnificent of a writer she is. In The Art of Being Free, McElroy establishes her philosophical framework for liberty on a libertarian and anarchist basis. In XXX, she explores the world of pornography via interviews with women who work in the industry, dispelling many of the myths that surround those who work in that arena. Not a connoisseur herself, she nonetheless defends women’s right to work in the industry without criminalization of their activities.
Author 19: F. A. Hayek
F. A. Hayek, too, could easily be considered along with Nock, Chodorov, and Rothbard, and is even more closely aligned with Ludwig von Mises and the school of Austrian Economics. However, like McElroy, Hayek, cut his own path, writing not only about economics and politics, but also exploring such areas as psychology and the philosophy of science. He is not quite the anarchist of the first group or McElroy, but Hayek is an avid defender of freedom. His major work that influenced me was the one by which most people know him, The Road to Serfdom. In this work, Hayek predicted, described, and warned of the encroaching State on the activities of a free society, particularly in form of the Welfare State. It is still a classic read to this day. His works The Sensory Order (psychology) and The Counter-Revolution in Science (philosophy of science) evidence his broad interests and intellect, placing him in similar crowds with Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.
Author 20: Robert Pirsig
Why Pirsig and Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Simply put, because the work, par excellence, deals with worldview, values, and the struggle to live consistently with what one has concluded about how to live one’s life. The subtitle of the book, “An Inquiry into Values”, is just that, and worth every mile you journey with Pirsig along the way. Today skepticism and relativism have appeared to engulf and undermine the notion of truth. Perhaps we’re in one of those decadent eras that Barzun describes. But Pirsig’s struggle is heroic, honest, and courageous.
As I stated in the “Introduction”, these authors listed here seize the opportunity to explore questions revolving around the art and skill of living, which this website, Contemplations, seeks to do as well. They are writers who have given us their works in the name of searching for the truth. They are 20 authors worth the read, along side those subsets I delineated, as well as many others. All I can encourage one to do is dive in, join the journey, and explore the question: How Should We Then Live?
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D./April 14, 2014
THE ARTS: Literature