Ten Books Of Influence: The Meme

Submitted by Brian on April 2nd, 2010 at 12:54 PM

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:

a-supposedly-fun-thing 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.

moralssquad 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

Comments

nicknick

April 2nd, 2010 at 1:27 PM ^

re: book #2

If you're currently taking classes and interested in exploring human cognition, Steve Kaplan and Leann Fu are teaching "Neural Models: Mechanisms of Learning" in the fall, crosslisted as Psych 740 / EECS 695 (and probably more). I cosign Brian's recommendation: it's had a lot of influence on my life philosophy.

blueblueblue

April 3rd, 2010 at 11:04 AM ^

I can also testify to the wisdom and influence of the Kaplans. Their life's work is neatly packaged into "the reasonable person model" of human behavior, which is the interconnection of certain key insights from their long careers of investigating how people are cognitively and behaviorally impacted by their environments. A synopsis can be found here:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447997/

brianshall

April 2nd, 2010 at 1:18 PM ^

No human being could sit through the Baroque Cycle. There has never been a more needlessly wordy, painfully dull, achingly disappointing read.

I don't believe you. I think you just want us to think you read it.

Kilgore Trout

April 2nd, 2010 at 1:29 PM ^

And at the end, I finally found one I've read. Good for me I guess.

I read that in English 220 as a freshman in the fall of '97 and confirmed that I should stick with engineering. I don't remember what it was about in any way, shape, or form, but I remember being amazed at how everything we read was apparently a phallic symbol according to the instructor. After that, I realized that every section of a class had a description, and perhaps I should read them before registering. I thought, "Short Stories and Novels" sounded cool. The uncool part (to me at least) was that the disclaimer was "Catholicism in 19th Century Literature."

[email protected]

April 2nd, 2010 at 1:48 PM ^

Thanks for chipping in on this one, Brian. I thought about including The Elements of Style--but I only finished the foreword and first two chapters before I freaked out. I was overcome with a desperate urge to take a hacksaw to everything I've ever written.

I've always struggled with the opposite problem in English classes: struggling to hack down the verbal kudzu that sprawls out of my fingers whenever I see an empty page. But (the first two chapters) of The Elements of Style gave me the tools: a little herbicide on the adverbs, and a period-machete when I finish a thought. Eventually, my readers see daylight through the jungle.

That having been said, I'm still not sure I'm ready for Chapter Three. My (much less impressive) list is here:

http://www.thelionsinwinter.com/2010/03/books-which-have-influenced-me-…

Peace
Ty

medals

April 2nd, 2010 at 1:53 PM ^

Consider the Lobster this winter and it was the first time reading anything by DFW. After about 2.5 pages, I could see the influences on my favorite blog.

Tha Stunna

April 2nd, 2010 at 1:58 PM ^

Terry Pratchett books > all. It's nice to see that I have something in common with a shadowy online individual who doesn't list any contact information.

I do appreciate the technical writing aspects as well, and the point about fluffing out sentences to meet a length requirement is pretty valid.

Someone should do a version of this for the freep.

WolverBean

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:06 PM ^

This blog's memoriam "DFW" was my introduction to the existence of David Foster Wallace. For this, I can only say, "Thank you." His article "Authority and American Usage" in "Consider the Lobster" has made a stronger impression on me than just about any other piece I've ever read. His ability to turn what is ostensibly a book review of a dictionary into a deeply insightful commentary on politics, education, class, society, and the ways we use language provides us with not only a fascinating read, but also a tremendous example of great writing in action. Meanwhile, "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" should be required reading for every sports fan, particularly those who wonder why post-game interviews always seems so vapid. And Brian, I do see DFW's influence on your writing - which I fully intend as a compliment.

MMB 82

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:04 PM ^

was an awesome book(s). But it did help if you had brushed up on your 17th century Brittish/European history. For anyone else I recommend Cryptonomicon. Or just start from Snow Crash and read forward....

OysterMonkey

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:10 PM ^

Brian's right. "Mason & Dixon" was better than "Gravity's Rainbow". But my favorite Pynchon is "V." Hunting alligators in the sewers? You can't beat that shit.

jamiemac

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:23 PM ^

Adverbs can be the enemy. And I lose a lot. I could use a session or two with my dusty copy of Strunk and White. I've had the same copy for over 20 years.

As for turning 30 word sentences into 15, I'll take the Over on something I've ever turned in to you. I can guarantee I threw at least a 40 word sentence at you for HTTV last year.

Very interesting list.

Scotthany

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:28 PM ^

I remember laughing hysterically while reading Bloom County Babylon as a young lad and the accompanying nagging feeling that I was born about a decade too late to really be enjoying this. I feel however justified in my mirth with the entirely appropriate over-use of such words as higgledy-piggledy.

Also another raised hand for having learned about DFW from this site, sadly just after his death. I've already read Infinite Jest, am currently working on A Supposedly Fun Thing, and my mother, for no apparent reason, just sent me Consider the Lobster. I need more free time.

Ack indeed.

matty blue

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:38 PM ^

agree with his inclusion in principle, but i'm not sure how anyone could pick one over another. they're so similar (similarly AWESOME, obv.)...

war Ironic Capitals.

[email protected]

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:52 PM ^

My .sig/forum signature was always the same quote from "Jingo" . . .

I'm a huge Pratchett fan from my teen years, but I was young enough (and poorly-read enough) that I didn't get a lot of the literary references. It's a testament to his skill that he can write wholly satirical novels that stand on their own as fiction, and as comedy.

I think my favorite is "Pyramids". I identified with the protagonist a little more in that one.

Peace
Ty

Zone Left

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:38 PM ^

If anyone wants a football related book and hasn't read it already, try "War as They Knew It." It's an interesting read that parallels the 10 Year War and the social unrest of Vietnam. Woody Hayes was known as a big-time history buff and WWII junkie, and is portrayed as perplexed by those damn kids and their hair while Bo is portrayed as the 1969 version of Nick Saban (not in the Satan way)--so totally focused on the process and the team as to be generally disinterested in the war except as it related to his team. The book focuses more on Woody, but paints a good portrait of him that's worth looking at.

Also, totally agree on Alton Brown. He's made me a better cook. Food Network's website has many recipes from him that are very accessible to amateurs yet quite tasty.

jmscher

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:41 PM ^

Brian, its interesting the you mentioned How Soccer Explains the World and having once had the desire to write something similar. I have long hoped you would one day write a book: How College Football Explains America. I think some of the stuff you have written on college football as it tangentially relates to academics specifically among "urban" and poor kids would be dead on target. As would some of the north/south, Big Ten/SEC divide possibly mirroring political polarization. I'm sure there is lots of other stuff.

Get to it!

chitownblue2

April 2nd, 2010 at 2:46 PM ^

The Elements of Style is funny, as well.

Their entry on "flammable" is one of the best things ever:

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning "combustible" is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means "not combustible." For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

I also rather like their entry on "prestigious":

"It's in the dictionary, but that doesn't mean you have to use it."

Finally, they also wrote "'Gullible' is not in the dictionary, but it is on the ceiling."

Blue Lou

April 2nd, 2010 at 3:06 PM ^

If I'm ever terminated for reading mgoblog at work, this will be a key piece of evidence supporting my argument that I was using the time to better myself.

I remember reading Infinite Jest and thinking DFW's mind works just like mine. It's finally clicked why I obsessively watch the feed for new posts.

Dan Man

April 2nd, 2010 at 3:25 PM ^

All of your "wincingly offtopic" stuff is great, and I'm sure I'm with a majority of Mgobloggers on that. I hope you never let the confines of Michigan sports limit interesting material like this.

Bronco648

April 2nd, 2010 at 3:36 PM ^

I'm surprised that Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' didn't make the list. After all, rutabagas are in the plot...

And, I always found Bloom County to be "Doonesbury for the Masses". You had to be politically astute and up-to-date with current events to truly enjoy Gary Trudeau.

Yes, thank doG for Alton Brown & Good Eats. The analogy is spot-on.

Now, back to my bread making....

Mi Sooner

April 2nd, 2010 at 3:39 PM ^

two excellent choices; i own books from both of them. It explains alot.

Bloom County helped me survive my last tour of duty in Oklahoma; my time spent at OU during the Barry switzer/Marcus Dupree era.

FGB

April 2nd, 2010 at 3:51 PM ^

Once a long while ago Brian discussed the possibility of a USMNT blog, which I realized was something of pipedream with a minimal likelihood of ever coming into being, given the time constraints, but I fancied the faint hope nonetheless that quality soccer writing combined with analysis and news coverage might converge.

Any progress on that front, or are we consigned to digging through BigSoccer/SBI/MFUSA/Fake Sigi for the rest of our lives/until we win the World Cup in 16 or 20 years and quality blogs finally emerge based on the sheer numbers of those making a play at it?