Wincingly offtopic offseason stuff is go.
Smart Football picked up on a meme from an economics blog and a couple people have asked me to participate, so here goes. It''s a list of the ten books that have "influenced you most," end of explanation. This is my best guess:
1. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace.
Within the last week a friend of mine mentioned he had dug back in the MGoBlog archives for some reason or another and told me that my writing was way less like DFW's than it used to be. It's mandatory, then, that this is at the top of the list.
Not that it could have been anything else. There's something in the final line of "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" that sticks with me. The essay is a ramble through DFW's childhood as a near-great juniors tennis player that ends with an incident where he and another local junior who would go on to greater heights are caught in a freak tornado that hurls them into the fence around the court so hard they leave "two body-shaped indentations like in cartoons where the guy's face makes a cast in the skillet that hit him." This event is documented in a sentence hundreds of words long and followed by
Antitoi's tennis continued to improve after that, but mine didn't.
The end. Outside its natural habitat, that sentence is flat enough to be worthy of Hemingway. As the culmination of DFW's dense rainforest of prose, it is a powerful coda. I think I think good writing is something that can take a sentence like that and turn it into something heart-stopping, and the trace of it runs through most of my columns.
Add in a world-realigning essay on what a world-class athlete is titled "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness*" that's a major reason I think football is a legitimate degree program and Marques Slocum is kind of a tragic figure despite everything and DFW in a tuxedo t-shirt secretly agreeing that caviar is blucky and there you go.
Let this stand for the rest of Wallace's work as well. DFW's essay on grammar isn't collected in this book but when a reader wanted to break me of my tendency to write singular plurals ending in S without a full possessive (ie, Jones') he pointed out that such things were deployed as "Jones's" in that essay and I immediately followed suit despite my tendency to read that as "keeping up with the Joneseses."
*(Harper's published this as "String Theory," which just goes to show.)
2. Cognition and environment: functioning in an uncertain world, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan.
This is the first of a couple cheats, but I did read it and it was part of a powerful realignment of my brain so here it goes. I graduated with a computer engineering degree in 2001. This was exactly when the Pets.com bubble burst and it seemed like looking for a job was a dumb idea. So I got a master's. In the process I took a couple classes from Stephen Kaplan about mental models, human desires, and accommodating those desires. They were cross-listed under all kinds of departments and I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up.
The classes ended up being tight 15-member groups where there was little in the way of assignments other than reading the coursepack/books and a solitary one-page paper at the end of the class. This paper was supposed to clearly communicate the ideas of the class—all of them—in about 250 words. The first attempt was meh and got a B+. The second one was kept as an example to show other people. It had bullets. It was about practically applying the ideas imparted by the class in life as an engineer.
That's enough, but the ideas of the class that I got my head around the second time are major reasons this blog has attracted the readership it has: people have a natural desire to explore while keeping familiar landmarks in sight. The possibility of the new is balanced with discomfort at being completely at sea. People seek to expand their cognitive ability in controlled bursts, striking a balance between boredom and confusion. People want their actions to have meaning, even if it's just seeing a number go up or down. Etc. I think the things I do are useful things to do largely because of these concepts.
3. The Elements of Style, Strunk and White.
The first of a couple wincingly clichéd entries here, but one that can't denied on the basis of the sentence that should by all rights be its title: "Omit needless words."
I am not a SNOOT. SNOOT is the acronym DFW deploys in the above-referenced grammar piece to indicate someone for whom the subjunctive is Serious Business indeed. (Wire fans should think of the scene early in season five where two grizzled newspaper editors paternally inform a n00b that unless you're talking about an enema it's not people who end up evacuated but buildings. Copy editors not being frequent subjects of dramatists, this is probably the most SNOOTy behavior ever filmed.) It's not really what I do. I write by ear and occasionally have SNOOTs show up in my own comments to declare that my "were" should have been a "was" or vice versa. All I know about the subjunctive is it makes Spanish verbs hard to conjugate after a "porque."
But I have also edited a metric ton of content over the past decade whether it was at the helm of the Every Three Weekly or editing Hail To The Victors or various guest posters/contributors here. And 90% of what I do is hack out useless clauses, rephrase unnecessarily clunky verb phrases, and turn 30 word sentences into 15 word sentences without dropping any meaning. Everyone who's ever written a paper with a page requirement knows the special agony of having nothing to say and a ton of space to say it in. The sentences that result are meandering things that say not very much in a ton of space. That's what 90% of people learn from English classes: how to turn a perfectly respectable sentence into something incomprehensible, cliché-ridden, and three times as long.
As someone who has fought a pitched battle against his tendency to insert "basically," "generally," "essentially," and all manner of other useless adverbs into any sentence that can bear one, "omit needless words" is a clarion call heeded daily. Many people have problems with specific sections of the book—apparently some of the examples lauded as correct are erroneous and vice-versa—but Strunk and White gets the most important thing right in language so clear as to be blinding. It wins.
4. I'm Just Here For The Food, Alton Brown.
Cheat #2. Alton Brown's influence on me has mostly come via Good Eats, but I do have this and his book about gear for your kitchen and his book about baking which has become completely superfluous in the wake of the fiancée's decision to become the Charles Woodson of sourdough bakers. Brown believes that everyone's lives can be improved by wonky discussions of technical topics enlivened with humor. He is basically me transplanted to Georgia and given a different family background.
Upon Further Review owes more to Alton Brown than any other person on the planet. Yes, the number of people who really care enough about marinades to comprehend the chemistry behind osmosis is relatively small, but by God if knowing that Alton Brown has read Harold Magee's book and translated it into cute kids with silly hats or army men isn't the essence of what I do around here I don't know what is. I'm not a football coach; Alton Brown is not a nutritional anthropologist or food chemist. We both stand as intermediaries. We attempt to translate the detailed, jargon-laden life's pursuit of an obsessive into actionable, relatively easy to understand niblets for the dedicated layman. I kind of hope to be the Alton Brown of Michigan football.
Also, Brown's chili is gooooooood.
5. Reaper Man, Terry Pratchett
I got on the Pratchett bandwagon faster than most scifi/fantasy dorks on this side of the Atlantic because one of my high school friends had an aunt who worked for a British publishing company and thought he'd like them. She was right, and after he read them he'd pass them to me one at a time. I lost one. It was a disaster.
When not losing the irreplaceable foreign books I was reading them and finding that they perfectly matched my sense of humor. For a six month period everything I wrote had superfluous footnotes. Pratchett's influence on me has become considerably more subtle but remains in the pacing of sentences, word play, and occasional deployment of ironic capitals.
6. Bloom County Babylon, Berke Breathed
A collection of comics that frequently referenced Ed Meese, Oliver North, Pat Robertson, and Tammy Faye Baker was an odd gift to provide a ten-year-old with no idea who any of those people were, but my dad did it anyway. I must have been a weird ten-year-old. He was right, though, and my copies of that and "Classics of Western Literature," the other Bloom County uber-collection, are hopelessly battered.
Here I should confess that I have directly stolen jokes from Breathed: in a preview last year I said if Michigan lost I would lead a convoy of escapees across the border to Mexico screaming "FOLLOW ME TO FREEDOM." This is almost exactly what Steve Dallas says in a Breathed-written short story titled "The Great LaRouche Toad-Frog Massacree." (If the title does not immediately clarify why I find Bloom County so spectacular, I cannot help you further.)
This is fine because Breathed's retrospective + funny stories book starts off with a Bloom County strip that is a close doppelganger of a Doonesbury, which I never read because it seemed like a version of Bloom County without heart. Great artists steal.
7. Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby.
Wincingly clichéd entry #2, but this is the emo sports memoir to end all emo sports memoirs. If you had three words to describe MGoBlog, could you do better than "emo sports memoir"?
(Five words: "Chart-laden emo sports memoir.")
8. Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky.
Another cheat. I don't actually like this book much because it is a book version of the Clay Shirky essays I have soaked in since I first saw some crazy article about Zipf's law applied to the internet a few years ago. It's boring, but only because I've already absorbed the content so wholly that I take it for granted.
I like to think that I've made approximately correct moves when it comes to the community around here, and Shirky's shaped my thinking about how communities act on the internet so profoundly that it's hard to conceive of an alternative. As the blog has grown I've tried to keep the signal to noise ratio up by erecting ever-greater barriers to participating, organizing content into transitory and relatively permanent sections, and providing feedback mechanisms* for people to invest in. I can't cite the Shirkythoughts that have caused me to take this path, but since 50-80% of what I think about the internet has a basis in what he thinks about the internet, I'm sure most of that is in there somewhere.
*(This bit has been scarily effective. Sometimes when someone does something I feel is detrimental to the tone of the community I sock them with absurd MGoPoint penalties. Not once have I done this and not gotten a complaining email. People joke about redeeming their useless MGoPoints for prizes—usually an invite to the wedding—but there's a bit of truth in their jokes. This is how sketchy Facebook game companies can thrive by selling fictional tractors.)
9. Lapsing into a comma, Bill Walsh
I bought a beard trimmer about a month ago. As I used it for the first time, I thought to myself: "I am no longer a man with a beard. I am a bearded man."
This is a style guide by the copy desk chief of the Washington Post. I bought it of my own volition to use for things other than class. Its purchase was possibly the moment I went from a man who writes to a writer. Though I flagrantly defy some of the book's proclamations—the page I just opened to told me that a single parenthesis after a number is an "illegitimate" mark of punctuation—it did finally get me to hurl periods and commas inside quotation marks no matter how little sense it makes.
10. Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper.
I was going to write a book on the World Cup, and soccer in general, as a society-defining cultural phenomenon. It turns out someone had already written that book, and then Franklin Foer had come in and rewritten it almost idea for idea. (Seriously: probably 2/3rds of the chapters in "How Soccer Explains The World" have direct analogues in the earlier Kuper book. Don't take just my word for it.)
Kuper's book shapes my conception of fandom to this day.
BONUS NOVELS I REALLY LIKE BUT HAVEN'T HAD SUCH OBVIOUS EFFECTS ON THIS BLOG
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M Miller
The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson
Mason and Dixon, Thomas Pychon (Gravity's Rainbow was too chaotic and meandering for me. I pick the one written in 17th-century dialect because it's more approachable. Also there is a Learned English Dog.)
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Fiasco, Stanislaw Lem