Caveat: These are among the books that most influenced me in one way or another, even if they are not necessarily the best books I have read.
Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom I didn’t think the book had influenced me much when I read it, but I’ve been amazed how often Friedman’s insights have helped form my own ideas.
Walter Williams, The State Against Blacks Not a great book, but it helped get me interested in the ways that government regulation has impeded the prospects of minority groups, a major theme of my academic research. Even more influential and helpful were several articles by economist Jennifer Roback (Morse), but we’re limited to books.
George Orwell, 1984 I read this book in seventh grade and wrote a book report on it. I still remember some of the scenes, so it must have influenced me. Animal Farm is up there, too (“Four legs good, two legs bad!” “I will work harder!”)
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness I much prefer Rand the polemicist essayist to Rand the polemicist novelist. This book contains the classic essays “Man’s Rights” and “Racism.” Rand was, in my opinion, generally much more powerful and insightful in critiquing the other side than in advocating for “Objectivism.” Consider this bit of wisdom from NPR’s Bob Edwards in 2003:
Ant colonies are often held up as the epitome of a harmonious cooperative society. Thousands of worker ants live together, happily accepting their lots as diggers, nannies or garbage men. Anything they do is for the good of the group, but it does sound a bit too good to be true.
Rand understood the evil inherent in such sentiments.
Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization Even though most American Jews have never heard of him, Kaplan was easily the most influential American rabbi of the 20th century. 40% or more of American Jews more or less adhere to Kaplan’s philosophy, even though they couldn’t identify it as his. This book is his magnum opus, although it’s rather dated now. It nevertheless explains how an agnostic bordering on atheist like me could still be committed to being part of the 3,500 year old Jewish civilization.
Whitaker Chambers, Witness; Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind; James Burnham, Suicide of the West I read these three books one Spring Break, on the recommendation of National Review, which touted them as the three basic texts of post-WWII conservatism. I found Chambers bizarre, mystical, and impenetrable, Kirk amazingly turgid and boring, and Burnham simplistic and racist. I ceased calling myself a conservative, and began wondering whether modern American conservatism had any core intellectual basis beyond what it inherited from classical liberalism and modern free market economics.
Anonymous, Title Withheld This extravagantly praised book was written by a left-wing professor teaching at one of the top law schools in the country. I read it many years ago. It was terrible, so terrible it was often funny, and I mean laugh out loud funny (I did, in fact, laugh out loud several times), but it was also exquisitely politically correct. I learned from this book that legal academia was only partially a meritocracy, with a lot of ideology and politics thrown in, and that I should therefore not take any future career slights as necessarily reflecting a meritocratic judgment on the value of my academic work. But I’m not going to pick a fight with the author and the author’s admirers by naming the book or the author.
Peter Huber, Galileo’s Revenge I was the research assistant for this book, an experience which sparked my interest in expert testimony, a significant focus of my academic work. Peter is one of the smartest people on the planet, and I learned a lot from working with him. I tried to emulate his style in my book, “You Can’t Say That!”.
Bernard Siegan, Economic Liberties and the Constitution An amazing book vigorously defending Lochner and other liberty of contract cases, after four decades in which it was nearly impossible to find even a mild defense of these cases. I read this book just before I started law school, and I’m sure it influenced me to revisit the Lochner line of cases, which I’ve been doing ever since.
Paul Fussell, Wartime American soldiers had no idea what they were fighting for in WWII, except to protect themselves and their buddies. It’s a bit much to expect wartime commanders to be sensitive to civilian casualties on the other side, or more generally (as with the American military’s (non)-reaction to the Holocaust) when they are sending thousands of their own men to their death. These and other insights about war.
Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews I really hated the yeshiva high school I attended, and I especially hated most of my Jewish studies classes. But I loved taking Jewish history with Rabbi Raymond Harrari, who fortunately let the history speak for itself, even if it conflicted with Orthodox theology (Chanukah, for example, was not known to involve the miracle of the temple lights until the fourth century, hundreds of years after the holiday originated!) Now that was interesting; learning the laws of sacrifice in Leviticus, which we spent an entire year on in Torah, was not. I’d probably be a Buddhist or something now but for this class. Grayzel was the text we used, and it introduced me to, among other things, a woman Jewish warrior who led a multi-religious coalition against Muslim invaders in 8th century Africa. I’ve loved Jewish history ever since.
Matt Ridley, The Origin of Virtue and Helen Fischer, Anatomy of Love My two introductions to evolutionary psychology. I haven’t looked at the world the same way since.
Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative I picked this up at a used book sale for five cents when I was in eighth grade. Until then, my exposure to politics was largely confined to reading the New York Times daily. I found that Goldwater made more sense to me than did Anthony Lewis. (And it was only years later that I found out that Russell Baker was a “humorist.”)
Amnon Rubinstein, The Zionist Dream Revisited I read it in the mid-80s, and it transformed my views on the Arab-Israeli conflict from right-wing to moderate left (on the spectrum of pro-Israel, Zionist opinion), where they’ve stayed ever since.
Thomas Sowell, Markets and Minorities et al. This book contained a lot of information that was, to say the least, contrary to the conventional wisdom in college and law school. It also helped spark my interest in the history of minority communities in the U.S.