Books that have influenced me most

The idea for this came from Marginal Revolution. This list is based on gut, rather than deep thinking, and I will admit that I had to keep in mind that I am writing for a football audience here as I composed it.  These are in no particular order, and, because the idea is “influence,” there is a tilt towards books I read when I was younger. Here is a list of 10 book, with only slight fudging:

1. The Bunch Attack: Using Compressed Formations in the Passing Game by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson, and Coaching Team Defense, by Fritz Shurmur. The book by Coverdale and Robinson showed me what was possible in terms of analyzing football and building a coherent system off a set of concepts and expanding them to whatever the defense throws at you. The Shurmur book, obviously focused on the other side of the ball, showed me how to take a set of very understandable principles and to think about how they can be taught and applied over and over again.

2. The Collected Short Stories of F.Scott Fitzgerald. This one for personal reasons, but, even when the stories occasionally sag or retread old material, the sentences remain among the best you’ll ever read. Fitzgerald is best read when you’re young.

3. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. I would expect most sports bloggers to include this one. The only sports book I truly love, and, to be honest, it’s only sort of about sports. Undoubtedly Smart Football, like Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, and many others, owe a lot to Lewis’s book, as my reaction to reading it was probably the same as many others’ (and mine was not cynical): (a) this guy can write brilliantly (I’d already read Liar’s Poker); (b) the lack of a rational, data-driven approach to sports is exactly what is wrong with it, so the book is a breath of fresh air; and (c) I want to expand on these ideas, including by applying them to footbal.? The other thing I appreciated was the intellectual history of ideas from Bill James to being used in clubhouses. This strongly influenced me, as I am generally uninterested in stats for their own sake — thus excluding most discussion — and am primarily interested in decisions and decisionmaking of all sorts, and how that can be improved.

4. The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., edited by Richard Posner. I think the man influenced me more than the book itself — the sheer largeness and breadth of his thoughts and interests is overwhelming, and his incessant skepticism leaves its impression — but the best evidence we have of the man is in these scattered writings. This also showed me that even the best thinkers can have badly flawed ideas, but also that, by implication, a reticence to share one’s ideas leads nowhere.

5. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein. There are other books about the importance of probability (Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets is another) but this one, by showing how innovations in thinking about probability has improved society throughout history, also shows how the ability to think probabilistically can improve your own decisions.

6. The Essential Dialogues of Plato and Plato’s Republic. I read these when I was fairly young, and, while Plato had some bizarre ideas, I still know of no other works more bound to inspire deeper thinking on the part of the reader than these.

7. Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. Although not easy to describe or explain, I think of this novel more than any other I’ve read, especially as I age.

8. Finding the Winning Edge, by Bill Walsh. It reminds me of Richard Posner’s Economic Analysis of Law, in that in both works the author has one very large, very important idea and he applies it to everything in sight. This is intended as a compliment.

9. A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell. Several of these essays remain among the greatest I’ve ever read, and I continue to refer to them. Like Holmes, Orwell was quite pragmatic and skeptical (though Holmes believed in a Darwinian-esque version of laissez-faire while Orwell was a socialist), but Orwell’s ability to write, mock, amuse, and argue — often all at once — remain, for me, unparalleled.

10. Thus Spake Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche. Like many of the other books on this list I read this when I was young and, also like many of the other books on this list, it got me very excited about ideas and how to think about them. More than the other thinkers, however, Nietzsche appealed to my (somewhat) adolescent desire to proclaim others else wrong about a great number of things. If I did a careful analysis of my current views they would differ markedly from Nietzsche’s, but I don’t think you read his works simply so you can agree with him. For analysis of Nietzsche, I also remember reading Joan Stambaugh’s The Other Nietzsche and thinking it a excellent, but that was a number of years ago and I don’t currently have a copy of the book. (And of course there is Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche blog.)

I’m sure there are other books I have left out, but this will have to do for now. The list is also light on fiction, which is more a function of having defined the list as “influence” than it is the fact that fiction hasn’t influenced me; it’s likely that the fiction has influenced me more than non-fiction (Invisible Man comes to mind), even if that influence is tougher to pin down. You can read lists by a few others here, here, and here.

I would really like to see the lists of other bloggers, sports bloggers in particular. So I encourage others to offer similar lists. Feel free to post links to them in the comments.

  • dguenther18

    I know this doesn’t pertain to the post, but i was reading and i couldn’t help but thinking how this is the receivers, quarterbacks, and coaches asking for injury.

    Theres been all this talk about receivers and quarterbacks are defenseless and how its not trying to take away from the game and they just want to protect guys.

    Is it just me, or is the best way to protect a receiver to not have them run defenseless 5 yards downfield into the linebackers? Or isn’t the best way to protect the quarterback to have him throw quick, 3-step throws, rather than 7-step, long-developing plays. If teams want to protect their players, shouldn’t they just have them run different plays and routes?

  • stan

    The paradox of trying to nail down what works influence us is that the most influential can be so precisely because we fail to appreciate their influence. The most successful sales pitch of all is to get someone to do what you want and think that they made the decision on their own.

  • Eric Burke

    Chris: your #1 is my #1 as well. I spent most of early 1999 reading it over and over (along with their quick passing game books). As a result, I was able to adapt my offense to use many of their principles and use it at the 10-12 year old level. We ran Mesh, Short, Slant as our primaries out of umpteen different formations. The reads were all the same for our WRs and QBs, but the defense was dictated by our formations. It was amazing how quickly the kids picked up the individual concepts and were able to apply them.

  • patspsycho

    I applaud your courage in publishing that list of books.. some of them will simply make readers go cross-eyed merely by their mention.

    But that shouldn’t prevent anyone from trying to discover them. The idea is that you shouldn’t feel obliged to understand anything at first pass, much less figure it out.

    Some of those books, especially Plato’s republic take a lifetime to read. What is best about those type of books is that every time you read one of them again, you essentially read a new book.

    Where’s the rush in that?

  • Tyler

    “Fitzgerald is best read when you’re young.”

    Absolutely true statement. The Great Gatsby still captivates the young today as much as it did when it was first released.

    If I were to make a list, I’d have much more fiction on there than non-fiction. I believe fiction captures life in action much clearer.

  • Here’s mine:

    It has nothing sports related on it, FYI. Thanks for sharing your list, and the encouragement to others to share theirs.

  • Wow….I feel pretty good about myself now after seeing that I’ve read many of the same books as Chris Brown. I would also agree with Coverdale/robinson Bunch Attack being at the top of the list. Anyone that has read this blog for a while would clearly detect the ‘Moneyball’ flavor / influence on its perspectives. Along those lines, I would be interested in your views on Liars Poker, as there seems to be some critical reviews of it of late (not content so much as perspective).

    Thank you for sharing. It provides a contextual layer to your writings and allows the readers to better appreciate your method.

    As for myself (since you asked), a brief reading list of myself from the past 2 years:

    Not all were winners, but the majority were highly influential in understanding delivery (Fisk/Hitchens/Phillips/Barry/Greenwald) to the reader. Often times I find the message isn’t as important as the how it is being told.

    In any respect, have a great ‘off-season’

  • OldSouth

    Brian Leiter is bright, but he’s also the archetypal douchebag law/philosophy professor. He responds to critics by belittling them and taking shots at their intellectual capacity. He often supplements that by regurgitating lists of thinkers apropos of nothing. This is to give his argument a faux sense of legitimacy and to make him appear learned.

    Leiter and his peers in douchebaggery produce a kind of intellectual inbreeding. This creates a class of people who mask their embarrassing inability to communicate with someone with an IQ under 120 through scornful derision of those “under” their level.

  • Against the Gods is absolutely fantastic. It explains sometimes tough concepts in extraordinarily understandable terms. Outstanding.

  • You asked for my 10 most influential books on Twitter, Chris, so I thought I’d post them here:

    1. “Terror and Consent: The Wars For the 21st Century” (Phillip Bobbitt). This is a contemporary book about contemporary events and, to a large extent, the future, so it’s hard to assess its staying power in this spot; I also bring almost no context for the author (he’s worked in a handful of Democratic administrations) or the fairly wonky foreign policy/intelligence world he inhabits. But Bobbitt makes a very clear, persuasive case in defining the overarching global conflict of the 21st Century – market state vs. terrorist state – and in laying out how the conflict has to be fought and won, with an emphasis on protecting civilians and maintaining rule of law under any and all circumstances. I bring the assumptions and ramifications of this book to the news on a daily basis, and don’t think I’ve read anything that does a better job of clearly explaining the development and reality of the modern world. I’m not smart enough to grasp it all, but clearly it is an Important Book For Our Times. (Which can only mean it will be thoroughly discredited in a decade…)

    2. “Calvin and Hobbes” (Bill Watterson). Any/all of the dozen or so books, especially the later ones. I ordered the first C&H treasury from a school brochure when I was 11, probably, and nothing has been as influential in developing my aesthetic sensibility: Smart, funny, consistent, occasionally poignant but never pretentious, always well-crafted with integrity. I should add that I almost never live up to any of that.

    3. “The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now” (Alma Guillermoprieto). A collection of of New Yorker articles from various Latin American countries from 1989-93. I was assigned this for a Latin American Studies class an undergrad, but didn’t read it until I was out of the class (the other books were mostly awful Leftist tomes). Quintessential foreign reporting, on par with The Wire for its ability to weave the daily bits of life “on the ground” with political headlines to paint a complete picture without much moralizing or sentimentality.

    4. “The Forgotten Soldier” (Guy Sajer). Another assigned book I didn’t really read until after I was out of the class. Probably the best possible “War is Hell” book, from the perspective of a French (Alsatian) Nazi on the Eastern Front in WWII. Some skeptics have questioned its veracity because of some unbelievably tedious errors, but as far as I can tell it’s almost universally hailed as an authentic, classic memoir.

    5. “Witness” (Whittaker Chambers) and “A Collection of Essays” (George Orwell). I put these in the same category because they’re very rare examples of engaged, practical, humanistic politics – Chambers from the right, Orwell from the left – that you don’t get much of these days. Maybe people didn’t then, either, but both of these books have a very engaging immediacy to them. Both were popular writers, too, Chambers for Time and the National Review and Orwell for all kinds of publications, as opposed to the ‘Politics’ shelf today, which is almost entirely Ann Coulter and Paul Begala types. Some people consider Chambers a controversial figure because his testimony against Alger Hiss aided and abetted the rise of McCarthy, Nixon and the Un-American Activities Committee, but Chambers opposed McCarthy, and I’m convinced of his brilliance since his famous takedown of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ confirmed my suspicions that Ayn Rand was full of shit.

    6. “The Stammering Century” (Gilbert Seldes) and “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (Richard Hofstedter). Seldes’ book, from the ’20s, is a study of 19th Century extremism in America, mostly religious (Mormons and the like) but also including the political scourges of his day, temperance and women’s suffrage. Hofstedter’s book is a more famous look at Americans’ persistent strain of willful ignorance in all its forms since the Colonial days. Both are reminders that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are not new.

    7. “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (Dave Eggers). Not even Eggers’ best book (I’m partial to “You Shall Know Our Velocity”), but early on in college I was reading a lot of Chuck Palahniuk and “Ghost World,” which are cynical and antisocial almost to the point of nihilism. I recognized immediately that Eggers was an antidote to all that, and much more on the kind of wavelength I wanted to follow. This is still a young person’s book, I think, but it introduced a much more mature, well-adjusted outlook than what I had been reading. (I do still hold “Ghost World” in pretty high esteem; not so much Palahniuk.)

    8. “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West” (Niall Ferguson). In part for setting up a great revisionist narrative of the 20th Century as the ultra-violent death throes of Western dominance that defined the world order in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and partly for maybe my favorite paragraph in any book (sorry for the length):

    “In the final climatic scene of Wagner’s ‘Gotterdammerung,’ – ‘Twilight of the Gods’ – the heroine Brunnhilde restores the stolen ring of power to the River Rhine and hurls onto her dead lover Siegfried’s funeral pyre. Her act of sublime self-sacrifice unleashes a fiery conflagration that topples the stronghold of the gods, Valhalla, in an almost un-stageable apocalypse. Hitler’s lifelong obsession with Wagner’s music had made it something like the official soundtrack of the Third Reich; indeed, Albert Speer was attending a concert performance of the finale of ‘Gotterdammerung’ (the Berlin Philharmonic’s last performance under the Third Reich) when the news of Roosevelt’s death reached Berlin. ‘The war isn’t lost, Roosevelt is dead!’ exclaimed Hitler. In reality, however, the year 1945 was to see the twilight of the devils. According to one intercepted Axis communication from a Japanese diplomat in Berlin, Hitler was planning ‘to embark alone on a plane carrying bombs and blow himself up somewhere over the Baltic.’ The intention was that ‘the one million fervent admirers of the Fuhrer among the German people … would believe that he had become a god and was dwelling in heaven.’ It was to be Brunnhilde’s immolation, in a Messerschmitt.”

    I can’t even pronounce ‘Gotterdammerung,’ but that’s pretty good.

    9. “Never Let Me Go” (Kazuo Ishiguro). I don’t like Ishiguro’s abrupt, formulaic resolution here or in “When We Were Orphans,” but until you get to the end both books are the novelistic equivalent of Faberget eggs.

    10. “Sein Language” (Jerry Seinfeld). A collection of all his standup jokes. I bought this about the same time I started watching ‘Seinfeld,’ (I don’t recall if the book took me to the show or vice versa; I seemed to jump into both simultaneously when I left behind ‘Saved By the Bell’ and ‘Full House’ as my afternoon reruns of choice) and it became the basis of most of my interaction with girls throughout high school. This was a more successful approach than you may think. I view Seinfeld now as basically a competent, genial hack necessary to make Larry David’s subversive brilliance go down smooth, but his standup and sitcom definitely influenced my sense of humor to a very large extent. I think he was also behind the hilarious “Letter From a Nut” books, which (along with Dave Barry) was the inspiration for all of my 11th grade English papers.

    Honorable Mention: “Our Dumb Century” (The Onion). Because it’s too damn funny to leave off.

  • OldSouth

    My list off the top of my head, with little fanfare or forethought:

    1) A History of the Modern World (RR Palmer)- The best comprehensive treatise on western history since the renaissance. Used as a textbook all the way from high school through grad school. Taught me how to think and analyze more than any book prior.

    2) Notes from Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)- If you’re into existentialism, nothing better captures a realistic reaction to the absurd. If you’re into any sort of psychology, nothing better captures a sense of a depressed man’s isolation.

    3) Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner)- If you have any connection to the South, this is a must read. In my opinion it’s the most important part of the Southern literary canon and no book haunts me like the final line of this.

    4) The Rum Diary (Hunter S. Thompson)- Probably only readable when you’re 18-28 years old. Any person who seriously introspects in their early adulthood will identify with the alternating feelings of listlessness, wanderlust, and gloomy fear of aging that appear in this book.

    5) The Stranger (Albert Camus)- Camus’s portrait of one man’s reaction to discovering the absurdity between man’s search for ultimate meaning and the forlorn realization that no such thing exist.

    6) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S Thompson)- 2 entries for Thompson here. A great exposition on a human psyche under the influence of alternating apathy and urgency under drug use. But the reason it made this list was its analysis of the failure of the 1960’s, and it includes some unbelievably beautiful quotes.

    7) Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)- Maybe a cliche entry, but the book really picks up some fascinating explorations of anti-intellectualism and its (inevitable?) consequences in the second half of the book.

    8) Guns, Germs, & Steel (Jared Diamond)- Unlike the other entries, this is here because of the writing and scope itself. The ability to take such an enormous subject, distill it down in to the essentials, make it comprehensible to the common man, and still retain incredible persuasiveness in its arguments is unbelievable. I wish I had his education and writing ability.

    9) Economic Analysis of Law (Richard Posner)- Incredibly influential, sophisticated reasoning on something that, frankly, is probably of more significance than the books above combined. Captures the war of utilitarianism vs. non-utilitarianism powerfully. It’s a debate that’s of incredible interest in philosophy of ethics, and of major significance in how we construct and think about our legal system.

    10) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)- As good and quintessentially American as an American novel gets. Nothing but The Great Gatsby comes close.

  • Ty

    Okay, here’s my crack at it:

    I tried to write my list without reading anyone else’s–but now that I’ve done so, I want to go back and add Calvin and Hobbes. Owned every collection–and need new copies of most, thanks to maniacal re-reading over the years.


  • Brian

    It may be cliche, but I don’t care. Emerson and Epictetus have affected me the most.

  • Dubber

    I think Nietzsche’s work should be studied in churches……not in a sense of “hear’s why he was wrong”, but in the context of how one can be more authentic in their faith (to steal Sartre’s line, who should also be taught in Sunday school). Facing the fire……what is soft will burn like wood, and what is strong will temper like steel.

    John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”
    Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”

    ….a couple of books to add to our “group” list.

    Football-wise, the only other books I could add would be Malzahn’s “Hurry Up, No Huddle” and Ellison’s “Run and Shoot”

    I really believe Ellison’s ideas on “fun football”, the phenomological approach to how one can coach and play the game, has influenced modern offense more than people give him credit.

    Great list and topic Chris

  • Books that have influenced me (Taken directly from my post over on my blog. Cut and paste is my friend.)

    This idea came from a reader of Tyler Cowen’s site Marginal Revolution. This is a list based more on my gut and what came to my mind stream of consciousness rather than trying to think too deeply about this list.

    I admit that it was not instantaneous; I still had to think about books that mattered to me. While I’ve been a voracious reader in my lifetime, I still had to think about what books really touched me on some level or made a difference in how I viewed things.

    Also, this list is in no particular order.

    1) Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell — Not the first Orwell I read (that honor belongs to Animal House) but this was the book that stuck with me. I was in high school when I read it, and it is the kind of book I wish I was talented enough to write. On some level, that applies to all of these books, but this one in particular was an enthralling memoir about being poor in two of the most famous cities in the world in the early 20th century.

    2) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — Chris over at Smart Football said this best: Fitzgerald is best read when you’re young. The charming and mysterious Gatsby is truly a seductive character.

    3) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger — While probably not the best Salinger you can read (Nine Stories holds that honor), I think that most teenaged males feel like Holden Caufield on our best days — especially those of us at prep schools.

    4) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes — Tilting at windmills. Dulcinea. The concept of how madness can consume us when we’re at our weakest. To me, on some level, this is the first modern novel. A classic work of art. I was introduced to it in Spanish class and then read it in translation.

    5) Bald As I Wanna Be by Tony Kornheiser — Mr. Tony? Really? Yes, really. I could have put Dave Barry in here as well, but I was nearing the end of my college career when I came across Tony Kornheiser’s radio show. While this is his second collection of Style section columns, I maintain that it’s his strongest. I can have it on my bookshelf for two years without reading it, pull it down and laugh out loud.

    6) I’m Just Here For the Food by Alton Brown — My patron saint of the kitchen, I fell in love with Good Eats while unemployed and living in Pennsylvania. Alton inspired me to do something with my downtime, and that was learn to cook better and more. This book helped diversify my skills and also taught me many things.

    7) On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee — And Mr. McGee helped explain the science and some of the history behind what Alton was teaching me. A reference book that I can read again and again.

    8) The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all of the evidence. It biases the judgment.” Something that every journalist or researcher should keep at the forefront of their mind. I know I do whenever I am writing longer pieces for this blog.

    9) The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka — Seventh grade. Starting to go through puberty. So naturally, this book about a major physical change resonated with me as I went through my own personal physical metamorphosis.

    10) Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare — Not to be contrarian, but I think Marc Antony’s eulogy for Caesar might be even better than Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Although really, the story is centered on Brutus’s conflict of the good of the state versus his own friendship and what should matter.

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  • Jerard

    OldSouth, I was also so affected by the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so much I have to share it with others. You can download it for free, also for Kindle:

  • I was just on Amazon thinking about getting The Winning Edge yesterday. Maybe I’ll give it a go.