Writings That Influenced Me

By Alex Beal
January 7, 2017

This is a list of writings, both books and articles, that have influenced me, either by coloring how I see the world, or being the start of a lifelong interest. These aren’t the best books I’ve read (although some of them are). Instead these are the books that have shaped who I am today.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

This was the first book, for me, that explained big problems through an economic lens. I read it while taking high school economics, so the impact was amplified. The mildly interesting concepts I was learning about in class suddenly seemed so very important. To this day, I’m very sympathetic to arguments that use economic abstractions to get to the heart of complex problems.

The Machinery of Freedom by David D. Friedman

This book is a lively defense of anarcho-capitalism. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more mild, and today I’d probably find this book a bit heavy-handed, but nevertheless, in terms of influence, it has certainly influenced my political views, and colored how I make sense of current events.

What You Can Change and What You Can’t by Martin Seligman

Most people are interested in self improvement, but, when picking goals, most people skip a crucial step: determining what is actually possible. For example, it turns out that significant weight loss in the long run is almost unheard of, and dieting is actually a good predictor of weight gain. Probably better to try and adopt healthy habits and ignore the scale. That said, the book is now 22 years old, so I do wonder if the empirics have held up, but even ignoring the empirics the lessons are twofold: (1) make sure your goals are realistic, and (2) weigh the psychological cost of focussing on your shortcomings and instead consider if acceptance would be a better strategy.

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

Reading this in high school made technology sound like such a terribly exciting field. The heroes in this book were my kind of heroes: quiet geeks working in solitude pushing the state of the art forward. My actual experiences in industry have turned out to be quite different, but this book fueled my imagination for years.

The Enchiridion by Epictetus

Despite studying philosophy in college, I actually encountered this book in a writing class of all places. Its most practical bit of advice is to focus on what’s in your control and ignore the rest. It’s an obvious lesson, but rarely is it applied. Look to social media for examples of so much energy expended on pointless indignation. It has greatly influenced how I’ve lived my life and how I’ve chosen to spend my time and mental energy. Additionally, being mortal has always loomed dark on the horizon for me, and some of its ideas on death I’ve found to be a comfort.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer

If The Undercover Economist is the book that convinced me economic reasoning is important, this is the article that convinced me philosophical reasoning is important. It’s a simple argument with far reaching consequences concerning our responsibilities to other people. Do I believe it’s the last word on the subject? Of course not. But it was one of the first works of philosophy I read that showed me how philosophical reasoning can bring clarity to complex topics that concern everyday life.

Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases by Alastair Norcross

This is the article that put me on the path to vegetarianism, so in terms of impact, the impact was tremendous. When discussions about vegetarianism start to go off into the weeds, I still find it helpful to come back to the deeply intuitive arguments in this paper.

The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan

This book introduced me to public choice theory and explained poor policy in terms of large economic forces. It argues that poor policy is a result of incentives built into our democratic system, and not something easily fixed. The conclusion is unsettling, but also freeing. Rather than raging against the machine, it’s much better to spend my time on problems I actually have a hope of solving. This is yet another book that has influenced how I’ve chosen to expend my energy.