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In celebration of College Week, Slate asked journalists, cable-news personalities, novelists, Hollywood types, and other great thinkers a question: What's the most influential book you read in college? What made you slam down your café au lait and set out to conquer the world? The answers are below.
Eric Alterman, media columnist, The Nation
I'd like to say Thucydides or Wittgenstein, or something fancy like that, but I guess it'd have to be Ronald Steel's biography of Walter Lippmann, not only because it taught me a great deal about how power worked in American politics, but also—and more important—because it gave me a model of what I might do with my life.
Judd Apatow, writer-director, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Having only gone to college for a year and a half, I didn't read enough books to remember an impactful one. The books I read while I was a dropout that inspired me are A Death in the Family, by James Agee, and A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exley.
Nicholson Baker, author, Checkpoint
During a junior year in Paris, I was supposed to be reading Samuel Beckett's l'Innommable for a lit class, but I couldn't face it. Dark, dark, dark. I took the subway to the Centre Pompidou library, where, browsing through a low shelf of philosophy books, I discovered Personal Knowledge, by chemist-epistemologist Michael Polanyi. What a fine, thought-twirling dufflebag of a book, full of odd anecdotes from the history of science and engineering—more helpful, it seemed to me, than Thomas Kuhn's windswept paradigm shifts or even Karl Popper's falsifiability. Polanyi's gist was that we know more than we know we know, and that without this connoisseurial, "unsayable" knowledge, science and society can't function. But the entertainment, as I remember it, was in the examples.
Harold Bloom, professor, Yale
It would have to be Shakespeare, and if one play only, Henry IV, Part I, because in Falstaff I found myself more truly and more strange.
Mark Bowden, national correspondent, the Atlantic
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which was not part of any course; in fact, I no longer recall how or why I picked it up, but to me it was incendiary. I was an English major, so I was reading a lot, but this was something entirely new and different. Here was a writer clearly having fun … no, the time of his life, with words, ideas, observation, storytelling. I was already interested in writing, but Wolfe made me crazy about writing.
David Brooks, columnist, the New York Times
This is going to sound awfully pompous (but hey, I went to the University of Chicago), but the two most important books I read in college were Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and Hobbes'Leviathan. I loathed both books at first reading, but they both explained how little we can rationally know about the world around us and how much we have to rely on habits, traditions, and intuition. I've been exemplifying our ignorance on a daily basis ever since.
Mark Cuban, owner, Dallas Mavericks The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It was incredibly motivating to me. It encouraged me to think as an individual, take risks to reach my goals, and responsibility for my successes and failures. I loved it. I don't know how many times I have read it, but it got to the point where I had to stop because I would get too fired up.
Anne Fadiman, Francis writer-in-residence, Yale The most influential textbook was Criticism: The Major Texts, an anthology in which pre-theoretical literary criticism wheezed its last heroic gasp. I read it during the first term of my freshman year in a class taught by its editor, Walter Jackson Bate, and it made me start thinking about the question, "What is literature for?" I'm still thinking about that question. The most influential extracurricular work was John McPhee's Encounters With the Archdruid, which I read in installments in The New Yorker. I'd previously thought fiction was a higher calling than nonfiction, but midway through the first installment I said to myself, "This is what I want to do." I knew I'd never be as good as McPhee, but he was the lodestar that set my course.
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