Friday, May 27, 2005

Three Most Intellectually Exciting Books in the Past Ten Years

This is my version of one of those "how many books do you own, etc.?" lists that is circulating through blogland.

In the comments, or in your own blog, talk about the three most intellectually exciting books you've read in the past decade. I don't mean so much old books (in which case Nietzche's The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals and Darwin's The Origin of Species would be on my list), but more contemporary books. Let's say books written since 1990.

At the top of my list would be Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform. I read this book in O'Hare Airport from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. one morning while waiting for my flight back to Boston from Kalamazoo. I was entranced. To me this book is one of the great technical masterpieces of medieval scholarship. Yes, I know, some very knowledgeable people have quarrels with Gretsch's treatment of glossography. I am not really qualified to mediate that dispute. But I am qualified to see the supreme beauty of an amazingly complex technical argument in which all the tools of philology and historical analysis are used to take a scattered mass of individual facts and weave them together into a coherent narrative.

Until I read Gretsch, my own book was a confused mess of ideas and observations. After I read Gretsch, I saw how all of the independent observations I had made fit into a larger, literary-historical narrative. I love this book and have read it three or four times (and it is not an easy read). One of the real triumphs of German philology. Also. Gretsch's work caused me to revisit the work of Michael Lapidge, in particular his Anglo-Latin Literature: 900-1066.

Next on the list is Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous IdeaDennett found ways to solve many of the problems of inheritance and culture-building that I had been struggling with, first in my notebooks and then in my dissertation. He showed how memes could work to explain culture (and, in his more ambitious formulation, consciousness). But most importantly, the book did two other things: First, it showed me how philosophy could be done without all the obfuscation and angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin circularity with which I had always associated philosophy. Second, it showed how one could make substantive scholarly contributions and also write for an audience of intelligent non-specialists. I hope my book will do the same (though, in actuality, it's probably closer to Gretsch than Dennett).

Finally, Dennett pointed me to Richard Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype. I use Dawkins' "meme" idea (which comes from his The Selfish Gene), but Extended Phenotype is such a beautifully constructed argument (and it contains almost everything that's in Selfish Gene) that it also blew me away. Dawkins quotes a colleague as saying "Richard Dawkins has rediscovered the organism." That is meant to be a criticism of Dawkins' stereotyped "gene-centric" view of life, but actually the colleague hit upon an enormously important point. After breaking down organic life and its evolution to its absolutely most simple building blocks, Dawkins is then able to build everything back up. It's what Russell and Whitehead did for mathematics (yes, Gödel squashed some of that, but we'll have that discussion another time), and it's exactly what I hope can be done with memes and culture: show how everything has to be consistent with the logical/mathematical foundations of the theory and then re-examine the much larger and more complex phenomena generated by the simpler rules.

All three books (and also Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, though I've fallen out of love with it, because I think Gould is quite wrong in important places) really changed me life. That change was in terms of intellectual practice and a knowledge of what was possible (i.e,. not a change the way Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (though they're caling it, The Devils now, which is a more literal translation of the Russian title) changed my understanding of life).

Now that I've started this, it's hard to stop, and I want to add more and more. But it's a good time to stop since we had a very long day (I had both children all day, then we went to Rhys' gymnastics, then to a farewell party for a dear colleague who is leaving Wheaton, etc., etc.) and am falling asleep as I type.


Triona Trog said...

Hi, I read your blog fairly often and enjoy it.

I'm attempting the blog thing and couldn't resist your "3 most intellectual books" challenge."


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