Too often life gets in the way of reading and thinking. Rarely are we given a chance to look back at what influenced our thinking. Sometimes these are small fragments — words, thoughts, marginalia, ideas, or even a book.
The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking contains an annotated listing of the books that mattered to over a hundred Harvard University faculty members along with some commentary on why.
Here is Pulitzer-winning writer and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s contribution.
I was an adolescent, from fifteen to eighteen years of age, when I encountered the books that were to have the most profound and lasting influence on my life. Thereafter I read thousands of books, many of equal or superior quality, and put most to good use; but I have to confess that individually they have had a steadily declining effect on my world view, style and ambition. Hence I can only offer you works that might, either literally or as examples of a genre, influence a certain kind of young person to take up a career as a biologist and naturalist. More I cannot promise.
Even as a small child I dreamed of going on faraway expeditions to collect insects and other animals. This book set my imagination on fire, and I was thereafter a nesiophile, a lover of islands, the concrete symbols of new worlds awaiting exploration. The compulsion was one of the mental factors that led me in later years to develop (with Robert H. MacArthur) the theory of island biogeography, which has become an influential part of ecology.
Although I was later to see Lysenkoism for what it was, false in conception, political in aim, and very nearly the death of Soviet genetics, I was enchanted by this little book when I encountered it at the age of sixteen. It appealed to my mood of rebelliousness. It seemed to me that Lysenko was offering a radical and effective challenge to conventional science, and that even the callow and inexperienced might have a chance to proceed directly to new realms of discovery.
When I was a seventeen-year-old college student, these Menckenesque essays broke me out of the fundamentalist Protestant faith in which I had been raised and moved me toward the secular humanism with which I increasingly identify today. I still find Wylie a delightful read.
The perfect young man’s book: a vision of a pure life devoted to the search for scientific truth, above money grubbing and hypocrisy. How I longed to be like Arrowsmith, to find my mentor in a real Gottlieb. The feeling was intensified when I discovered Jack London’s Martin Eden shortly afterward.
This taut little book, which I encountered as a college freshman, invited biologists to think of life in more purely physical terms. Schrodinger was right of course, as witness the rise of molecular biology soon afterward. For me his arguments suggested delicious mysteries and great challenges. (Later, I was especially pleased when a reviewer likened my own book Genes, Mind, and Culture, published with C. J. Lumsden in 1981, to What Is Life? saying that it offered a comparable challenge from biology to the social sciences.)
By defining the biological species in strong, vital language and connecting the process of species formation to genetics, Mayr opened a large part of natural history to a more scientific form of analysis. This is an example of a very heuristic work, which invited young scientists to join an exciting quest in field research. More than forty years after its publication, I am still wholly involved in this effort.
I hope that I have not missed the editors’ purpose entirely by listing books that affected one rather rebellious adolescent in the 1940s, but I was quite surprised myself when I came up with this list after careful reflection. Let me make partial amends by citing the work that I pull off the shelf most often, and gives me the greatest pleasure, now that I am in my fifties: Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. For this work reflects the point to which I have come, in company with such a magnificent spirit who “bears in mind that all that is rational is akin, and that it is in man’s nature to care for all men, and that we should not embrace the opinion of all, but of those alone who live in conscious agreement with Nature.