Oct 2, 2011

The Most Important Books in My Life

At 67, I am beginning the last phase of my life. I am looking back, and one pattern I see is the role of books in my development. They awakened in me the possibility of a life worth living; they helped me solve personal problems that threatened my progress; and they provided the particular information I needed to achieve my four highest personal values: my work, my free-range lifestyle, my friendships, and my favorite leisure activity, reading fiction for happy endings.

The list that follows is a salute to the authors of the books that have enriched my life. The list may also remind those who labor to write books that your writings do have influence, even though you may never see the results.

The following list is organized by category, but the categories are roughly chronological in terms of their first appearance in my life. Not included are the earliest books and comics; none stand out to me now, though I remember reading them avidly for the action and for the exotic situations, as in the long series of Tarzan comics.

1. FICTION. At the age of 12. around 1956, I read Carey Rockwell's Stand by for Mars! (1952). This Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure, written for a juvenile audience, is a story of ambition, extraordinary circumstances, and success. It was one of many science fiction stories -- particularly of "future history" -- that I consumed in the following 20 years. (In junior high school, I was intrigued by history but could not make sense of it as a system.)

At about age 15, I began reading Conan Doyle's many Sherlock Holmes short stories. They introduced me to a logical mind, one that explicitly begins with sense-perceptible facts and proceeds to a conclusion that solves a problem -- all in exotic conditions uncovered in everyday life. What I yearned for at this time was a methodical way of dealing with life. I went through a period of near-suicidal depression.

Over the years, I learned that one question matters most in selecting fiction: Would I want to be alive in the world this storyteller has created? I can now answer "Yes!" for casual fiction writers such as Louis L'Amour (Utah Blaine), Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe series), Agatha Christie (Miss Marple series), Robert B. Parker (Spencer series and Randall series), Tolkien (Lord of the Rings trilogy only) and Keith Laumer. They are the writers whose stories I have collected, kept, and will read again and again until the end.

2. PHILOSOPHY. At the age of 17, in March of 1961, I watched a morning television show, an interview of Ayn Rand about her recently published book, For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Her book offered the elements of a framework for viewing my world and my life as a whole. The book, especially the title essay, introduced me not only to her philosophy, Objectivism, but also to the subject that would become the core of my life: the history of the lives of the philosophers. I soon read Ayn Rand's novels and -- by writing to the address printed at the end of Atlas Shrugged -- began obtaining the few, short, nonfiction works that were slowly emerging. I now had the framework I needed, but understanding it and applying it would require a long time. Fifty-one years after seeing that interview, I am still learning and applying.

3. HISTORY. In a Medieval History class at Tulane University, around 1964, I read sections of R. R. Bolgar's The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries. It gave me details that showed that ideas cause history, as Ayn Rand had held. Since then I have purchased hundreds of books on history. A few admirable examples are: John Marenbon, Early Medieval Philosophy and Later Medieval Philosophy; Frederic C. Lane, Venice, a Maritime Republic; and Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte.

4. MONEY. When I began working my first professional job, as a writer in a marketing department of an electronics company, I followed the advice of a woman I met there; she was a refugee from the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution: "Live on one paycheck, and invest the next one." I paid my debts from school and began to look for ways to invest for the future. I wanted to retire early. (The men in my family died young; so, I was told, I should expect the same.) That was around 1969. I read a variety of books on "Austrian" economics and a few on personal investment. The one book that best represents that stream of books is Harry Browne's much later Why the Best-Laid Investment Plans Usually Go Wrong: How You Can Find Safety and Profit in an Uncertain World. I retired at age 45. I have followed Browne's "permanent portfolio" idea for 35 years. (I generally ignored the other half of the book, on a "variable portfolio.")

5. HEALTH. I faced heart disease at the age of 30. A wise doctor gave me a choice: take drugs for the remainder of my life or change my lifestyle. I chose the latter. Among other books, I read Live Longer Now: The First 100 Years of Your Life (1974) by Nathan Pritikin and others. (I have not studied the current version of the Pritikin Program.) Within 15 months, by following its guidelines, I lost 75 pounds and banished my heart disease.

Fifteen years later, my long, cascading series of other medical problems accelerated. Two books, which I read around 2002, led me to solutions to many of the problems. The first, which I still use, is for posture correction: Pete Egoscue's Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain. The second did not solve my many inflammation problems directly, but it did lead me to a diagnostic tool (an elimination diet) and then to a dietary solution: The McDougall Program: 12 Days to Dynamic Health, by John A. McDougall, MD. Thanks to Egoscue and McDougall, years of physical misery were coming to an end.

Books have provided information and fuel, and thus they have helped me shape my life to be what I wanted it to be. Thank you, to all the writers who labored so long and hard.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith