Every once in a while, especially when I still had accounts on ask.fm and Curious Cat, someone has asked me what books I’ve read that have most influenced me. It’s a reasonable enough question and seems like one I should be able to answer. After all, I read a lot and come across as a thoughtful person, and many posts on this blog are essentially my public attempts at trying to better understand what I read. However, there really isn’t one good answer. For one thing, I believe I’ve been influenced far more by the sum of many books and experiences than just a handful that I could easily enumerate. Also, much depends on what exactly we mean by “influence.”
For example, the obligatory answer to this question from any Christian is “the Bible.” By one measure of influence, this certainly is the answer in that it’s the one book I trust more than any other on the most important issues. If there’s a question of morality or any related subject and Scripture speaks on it, then I’m going to follow Scripture. There’s no doubt that it has also affected my beliefs in preferences in matters of art, as well, as Scripture permeates Western literature more than any other source.
I don’t think, though, that the Bible satisfies the question of what book has most influenced me because it hasn’t really changed my beliefs on anything. I was raised Catholic and have never deviated from the Church, so Scripture is more of a framework that other ideas build around and must conform to, similar to a first principle or axiom. Moving on, those who know me might expect me to say that the Analects of Confucius are my most personally influential book. This has had a similar long-term influence comparable to Scripture, except of course that I wasn’t born into Confucianism and Confucius rests at a lower level of authority (a status I’m sure China’s First Teacher would’ve expected and preferred). My thoughts on politics draw much from the Analects and the rest of the Confucian canon, especially the importance of “rites,” rule by virtue, the Mandate of Heaven, and that society rests on the strength of the Five Relationships (between sovereign and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friend and friend).
Now, certainly Confucius has been the immediate source for these concepts and determined the specific form they take in my mind. However, I accept Confucian thought insofar as it lines up with Christian thought, and these ideas are also found in or can be derived from Christian political thought as well. In a previous review, I quoted St. Isidore of Seville’s Sentences, where he says “‘Kings’ (reges) are so called from ‘acting rightly’ (recte agendo); the title of king, then, is retained by doing right, forfeited by doing wrong." That and the rest of the same passage get us the Mandate of Heaven and rule by virtue, with the latter further bolstered by Pope Gregory the Great, “Supreme rule, then, is ordered well, when he who presides lords it over vices, rather than over his brethren.” One can also read the historical books of the Old Testament to see God’s treatment of good and wicked kings and peoples.
As for the Five Relationships, the family as the basic unit of society is practically a cliché in Christian circles, which gets us three of them. Scripture exhorts obedience to kings, e.g., “My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not disobey either of them; for disaster from them will rise suddenly, and who knows the ruin that will come from them both?” (Prov. 24:21-22). It’s also clear, again from the historical books, that kings have responsibilities to their people. That leaves the relationship between friend and friend, and again we can turn to Solomon on this, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17). Rites, too, are emphasised in Scripture, most obviously in the Mosaic Law which disciplined and formed the people in virtue even in what seem like purely ritual prescriptions.
The most interesting answers to “what book has most influenced you” tend to be those that caused a sudden or immediate change in the person. For me, I can think of two books that fit this description, one that brought me in to Libertarianism in college, Ron Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto, and one that brought me out a couple years later, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. The first can be removed from consideration because, though Libertarianism was important as my first attempt at thinking seriously about politics and has left a small influence, it was also short-lived. As for the latter, its primary influence was as a correction to something else, and coupled with one other experience made me realise that there can be no Christian Libertarianism.
So, is there a book that produced a significant, lasting change in my life? As a matter of fact, yes, and it’s probably the best answer to what book has influenced me the most. That would be the most reactionary book ever written, Kondo Marie’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Yeah, I’d prefer to answer our big question with a heavy, prestigious tome, but here’s the thing. It was a while sorting through my books in accordance with Kondo’s tidying method that I had the fateful thought, “Hey, I’m good at this, I should be a librarian.” This idea may have come to me eventually anyway, but that’s impossible to say. The fact is that this was what prompted me to look at what’s involved in librarianship and being a librarian, which set me on the path to that career choice. One might also think it was the action of sorting through my books and not Kondo’s advice that prompted this change in careers, but I’m not sure that I’d have been doing the sorting that prompted the thought without her.
So, there you have it. Depending on how you want to measure it, the books that have influenced me the most are the Bible, the Analects, Quadragesimo Anno, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Maybe not the most exciting of choices, but so it goes.