Arnold Kling  

Book Lists and Signaling

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Austin Bramwell writes,


Cowen's Influential Books Game gave bloggers an excuse to promote themselves by composing lists designed to excite the maximum of reader admiration. Which is not to say that any lists were insincere: on the contrary, the top bloggers ended up sounding all very smart and thoughtful precisely because they really are just the sort of people whose lives were changed by reading Nietzsche.

When I came up with my list, I knew that this was the sort of thing that could be a signaling game. But I tried to play it straight. As others' lists came out, my inclination was to view as a poseur or self-deceiver anyone who listed a major work of philosophy. I have nothing against philosophy. It's perfectly fine stuff. But the way I see it, learning from philosophers is a function of grinding your mind against them, like sandpaper, rather than a matter of having the scales fall from your eyes because you read one great philosophical work.

I take exception to Bramwell's implication that I have not learned from the other side. First of all, I was on the other side for many years, so my libertarianism is learned--although learned as much from experience as from any books. Second, the very first book I cite is by Halberstam, who is very much on the other side. One can trace my Break up the Banks thinking to that influence.

I guess the bottom line is that, as I said in my original post, I do not view books as my top influences. My top influences would be people (my father, Bernie Saffran) and experiences (interning in the office of Senator Hubert Humphrey, working at the Fed, working at Freddie Mac, launching an Internet startup where I ultimately partnered with someone whose highest educational attainment was a high-school equivalency GED, etc.)

No matter how broad or extensive your reading, if the top influences in your life were all books, that would strike me as kind of sad.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
AC writes:

I can't tell if that article is being genuinely congratulatory to Yglesias, or just acknowledging tongue-in-cheek that he won the signaling game (note the link posted in the comments where he admits to lying about his reading habits).

Troy Camplin writes:

Considering that I know for a fact that I wouldn't be who I am had it not been for my having read Nietzsche, I certainly don't agree with you that listing a major philosopher or his work(s) makes one a poseur or self-deceived. Nietzsche and Ayn Rand both transformed me from a recombinant gene technology major to a Ph.D. in the humanities who writes poetry, plays, and scholarly works on literature, spontaneous orders, and evolutionary psychology. Just as important, of course, was the Intro. to Philosophy course I took with Ronald Nash, who introduced me to philosophy and free market economics. I wouldn't have discovered either Nietzsche or Ayn Rand (and I discovered Nietzsche through Ayn Rand) had it not been for him.

Tom West writes:

I knew that this was the sort of thing that could be a signaling game. But I tried to play it straight.

Which is why you'd *never* make it as a politician.

Everything is politics.

Tom West writes:

(Addendum)

Which is why, incidentally, you're worth reading.

One gets a sense that you are saying what you believe, rather than what you believe will be most likely to get what you believe made policy.

Rayson writes:
I guess the bottom line is that, as I said in my original post, I do not view books as my top influences.

That's strange ;-) I wrote almost exactly the same thing (although in German...) as a kind of disclaimer above my list. I suppose that people who have spent almost their whole life in an environment where books play a major role (school, college, university) are much more influenced by them than by other sources of experience.

Troy Camplin writes:

That's also true of those of us who are scholars and creative writers, as is the case for myself.

dullgeek writes:

No matter how broad or extensive your reading, if the top influences in your life were all books, that would strike me as kind of sad.

Really? The problem with using people and experience as an influence is that it's prone to selection bias. For example, it's impossible for me to meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was killed a month before I was born. But I can read his writings, and read the experiences of people who did meet him, and be influenced by him indirectly.

Reading strikes me as having the best chance of expanding the scope of what you see in the world. I grew up in a small town in rural Wisconsin. Had it not been for reading, I might still be inside that cocoon.

It's hard for me to imagine why anyone would say that reading should *not* be at or near the top influences that one has.

What am I missing?

BZ writes:

But the way I see it, learning from philosophers is a function of grinding your mind against them, like sandpaper, rather than a matter of having the scales fall from your eyes because you read one great philosophical work.

Gosh -- this just couldn't BE more wrong. Locke, for instance, did exactly that for me. Certainly many different works have rubbed me in different ways, but to say that that the ideas in such works can't hit some people right between the eyes is just factually incorrect.

Austin Bramwell writes:

Prof Kling-- All these points are well-taken. My post was of course written in jest -- though, on reflection, I would have to say that your list was the least ripe target (if "ripe" at all) and the one list that didn't really belong with the others.

RBL writes:

Dr. Kling, your mention of Bernie Saffran sent me on a google search for more info. He seems to have influenced a lot of students, but the first few pages of hits gave no biographical data. Could you gin up a Wikipedia page for him?

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