Under the Influence

Otto Weininger's writings were bizarre, unoriginal and morbid. So why are they classics?

March 24, 2010

What 10 books have most influenced you? That question has launched many a discussion online in recent days.I’ve been scribbling down my own list while reading the replies – but also wondering just how we assess the presence of influence, let alone its relative intensity.

With some of the lists, it's hard to tell what the word means. If a person names J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as an influence, what does that imply? Did he or she become a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature? Go on an epic quest that saved the world? Write hobbit stories? Record a heavy-metal album with runes on the cover?

To cite something as an influence can be a way to emphasize that it yielded much satisfaction. But the term properly implies something more consequential than that. You didn't just consume and digest; you were consumed and digested in turn.

I greatly enjoy the TV series "Breaking Bad" yet do not feel that it is transforming my existence. It has not inspired me to cook and sell methamphetamines, or even to imagine this as a possible solution to midlife anomie. Hence I would not claim it as an influence, just yet.

What counts, then? In mulling this over, it became clear that some authors were just too influential to claim as influences, if you will forgive the paradox. I read quite a lot of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche at an impressionable age, and this certainly left its mark. But putting them on the list seemed unnecessary, for their power is pretty nearly inescapable.It would be like pointing out that I have breathed a lot of oxygen in my day.

Anyway, enough prolegomenous throat clearing. On to the list...

(1) Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian

Until shortly before my 14th birthday, in the opening months of the Carter administration, I was a Christian fundamentalist who fully expected the apocalyptic scenario of the Book of Revelation to be worked out in world events during my lifetime. Please understand that I do not say that with even the slightest sense of irony.

At the time, I was also very keen on Blaise Pascal, who was definitely not a Southern Baptist but who had undergone a mystical experience giving him a deep conviction of the existence of a divine order. Bertrand Russell’s book must have been on a library shelf near Pascal. I started reading it to arm myself against the enemy.

Things did not work out that way. In his urbane and relentlessly logical manner, Russell broke down everything that I had taken to be axiomatic about the existence of God -- and about the terrible consequences of not believing. He seemed to anticipate every counterargument. I spent days -- and a few late nights – running through it in my head.

The experience was painful and terrifying. It shook me to my core; even that seems like an understatement. Nothing remained the same afterward. To repeat: Influence and pleasure are entirely different things.

(2) Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems

At 14, I thought this was the greatest book of poetry ever. The length and the rhythm of Ginsberg’s lines, his juxtapositions of imagery (“the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”), the way his diction shifted into the biblical or the street-level obscene ... all of this made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Which, as someone once, said, is how you can tell when poetry is working on you.

It also inspired many a page of my own literary efforts, now lost to posterity. Paper will burn, if you let it.

Today the Beat idea that suffering and madness and extremity bring wisdom does not strike me quite so appealing and romantic. I have been exposed to quite enough miserable, crazy, extreme people for one lifetime. (They come to Washington a lot, especially these days.) But I still love this book. The shorter poems in the back – written when Ginsberg himself was under the influence of William Carlos Williams – still seem very moving.

(3) Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions

The best way to discover Borges is probably through the short stories in Ficciones, or the selection of prose and poetry in Labyrinths. As chance had it, I first came across him by way of this volume of essays, in which criticism becomes a form of imaginative writing. For Borges, all of literature forms one big interconnected structure in which the books are, in effect, reading you. Many an academic article on intertextuality consists of an unwitting and usually witless gloss on Other Inquisitions.

My favorite passage comes at the end of “Kafka and His Precursors,” an essay of three pages that subtly transforms the very idea of “influence” itself: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

(4) Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Borges combined erudition with playfulness. Sontag, by contrast, was an erudite person who sometimes tried very hard to be playful, more or less out of a sense of duty. I don’t think this worked out very well, and certainly not over the long run.

But in the early 1960s, she wrote a series of essays on literature, film, art, and ideas that remain exceptional and definitive. In them you feel a mind trying to open itself to as many possibilities as it can, sort of like Matthew Arnold dealing with being trapped in Andy Warhol’s Factory for a while. This book was the syllabus for my own reading and moviegoing for a few years after I first discovered it, and I go back to visit it from time to time, like a favorite neighborhood.

(5-6) Jean-Paul Sartre, pretty much anything in English translation as of the early 1980s

OK, admittedly this is cheating, since it would include dozens of volumes of philosophy, fiction, plays, and journalism. I would need to wedge the pertinent volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs in there, as well. You do what you have to do. I feel sufficiently uneasy about this to let it claim two spots on the list, rather than just one.

Sartre embodied the writer as intellectual and activist. There is nobody even remotely comparable these days; don't accept cheesy knock-offs. The question of Sartre's legacy is too complicated to go into here, and I am ambivalent about much of it, now, in any case. But his work still provokes me – through inspiration or irritation or both – in a way that no living author’s work does.

Narrowing things down a bit: Two volumes of interviews and articles from his final decade or so, Life/Situations and Between Marxism and Existentialism, seem like quintessential books. The latter has recently been reissued by Verso.

(7) Norman Podhoretz, Making It

Published in late 1967, while Podhoretz still considered himself a liberal (his transformation into neoconservative ideologue would take a few more years), Making It is the story of one man’s relentless climb to eminence in the world of the New York literary-intellectual establishment.“One of the longest journeys in the world,” its opening sentence begins, “is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan....”

Reading this in Texas at the age of 19, I was not yet in a position to appreciate its full, rich ridiculousness, and instead studied the book as carefully as I once had any account of the act of love – preparing for the day when detailed information might prove useful, rather than just frustrating.

In a hurry to brush off the hayseeds, I managed to confuse cynicism with sophistication. Over time, this did a certain amount of damage -- some of it, fortunately, remediable. It is embarrassing to include this book on my list. That is why I am doing so.

(8) Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

There are serious problems with Hofstadter’s analysis of the People’s Party of the 1890s. We can talk about the failings of the consensus school of U.S. historiography until the cows come home. I acknowledge these things without reservation. And yet this book is indispensable.

I first read it in the early 1980s and have revisited it at least once each decade since then. I know of no better description of the typical qualities and standard features of our public discourse in its barking-at-the-moon episodes. It reminds us that such upsurges do not come out of nowhere. This is not exactly a comfort, but it does help make the batshit insane seem at least somewhat intelligible.

One American television network has evidently adopted the book as the basis for its business model. But you can’t blame Hofstadter for that.

(9) Richard Wright, American Hunger

In the early 1940s, Richard Wright produced an autobiographical manuscript covering his life up to 1937. Most of it was appeared in 1945 as Black Boy, but the final section, covering his years as a member of the Communist Party, was published as a separate book in 1977.

I was very taken with it not simply for its account of the radical movement during the Depression but for Wright's account of his own struggle to become a writer. And all the more so given something the author's estate included in the original printing of the book. It was facsimile reproduction of one page of the typescript, covered with his handwritten revisions of the text -- lines crossed out, words changed, sentences rewritten, etc.

This came as a revelation. My assumption had been that once you learned how to write, well, you just wrote. (The struggle was just to get to that point.) I stared at the page for a long time, trying to figure out how Wright had known that a given phrase or sentence might be improved, especially since what he had down often looked fine.

Another form of influence: When a book teaches you how much you don't know about how much you don't know, and how much you need to know it.

(10) Richard Lanham, Revising Prose

Finding this volume in a secondhand bookstore was not, perhaps, the answer to a prayer. But the deep perplexity left by American Hunger certainly left me ready for it.

Half of learning to write is knowing how to recognize when a sentence or paragraph is bad, and why, and what can be done about this. Lanham teaches a handful of very basic skills necessary to begin reworking a draft. His manual is now in its fifth edition. I have no idea what changes may have been introduced in the past 25 years or so. But if a textbook ever changed my life, this one did.


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