The Books That Made Me

By Professor David Owen.

I grew up in a house full of books that I didn’t – couldn’t – read, so I did maths instead. Then when I was 9, two things happened. First, my family moved to Malaysia (a country whose English language television was at that time limited to a weekly showing of Crown Court). Second, I discovered a way of reading that seemed to work around my dyslexia – namely focusing centre-outwards on a whole line at a time and reading down the middle of the page (later in life I was told this is how people are taught to speed-read but I don’t know if that is true).  And then I read, all the time, absolutely indiscriminately – Plutarch’s Lives propped up next to Tom Swift adventures, my mother’s copies of Homer and Plato, my father’s of Asimov and van Vogt. The local club library kindly altered their rules for me as I consumed books, hoovering up text – but although I now read endlessly, I hadn’t really learned to read, everything was processed through the reading-machine in the same way. This probably wasn’t a bad thing in some ways – I would head off to Plato’s Republic in much the same way that I explored Ursula le Guin’s other worlds – but it didn’t do justice to the imaginations I was starting to encounter. What changed this was poetry and drama, more specifically I became enrapt by lyric poetry (notably Robert Herrick) and, above all, by Shakespeare. They slowed me down, and, slowly, they taught me to read (although I was, perhaps am, still consuming lots of stuff on the side).  Aged 12, I notice that my initials and surname – R.D. Owen – are an anagram of ‘Wonder’ and invest this with mystical significance.

So now I’m a teenager, your standard maths and science kid, except that I am writing reams of extremely bad poetry and have composed one equally awful play (this, as I recall, involved someone being dropped head first on a pyramid). Three books then came along. The first was The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse which showed me an entirely different approach to poetry (and led me to Tu Fu who remains a delight). The second was J.E. Gordon The New Science of Strong Materials which to a 15 year old aspirant scientist was beautifully accessible and tremendously exciting. Reading this put me on a path that left me two years later, having completed Maths, Physic and Chemistry A-levels,  with the apparent choice between taking up my place at Imperial College to read ‘Metals and Metallurgical Science’ or staying at school to take the Oxbridge exams in order to do Natural Sciences as Cambridge (in those days no serious science student thought about Oxford unless you just wanted to ‘do’ Oxbridge). This was only an apparent choice though because of the third book which I’d discovered ion a shelf in the physics lab, Bryan Magee’s Popper (in the excellent emerging Fontana Master’s series which the experience of Magee’s book lead me to read as they appeared). This was a slight book but I read it with a dawning appreciation that this might be a plane where the bit of me that did maths and the bit of me that did poetry could meet. Reading Popper Conjectures and Refutations and, more especially, the essay by Lakatos in Musgrave & Lakatos (ed.) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, however little I understood them, simply reinforced this view.Anyway, it scotched my scientific future and led me to stay on at school to do a secondary set of A-levels in English, Economics and Politics the following year– and here the fun really began. Two books in particular marked me: Joan Robinson Economic Philosophy and Jean-Jacques Rousseau The Social Contract. The first made me think hard about the presuppositions of the micro- and macro-economics texts I was reading and sent me off to slog through Marx’s Capital. The second blew my mind. It wasn’t the only book we read for the Political Theory paper in Politics A-level; we also looked Burke and Paine on the French Revolution, Mill’s On Liberty and Marx The Communist Manifesto – of which Mill was the otherwise most engaging and Marx’s manifesto, albeit disappointing by contrast to the riches of Capital, the most exhilarating. But Rousseau – wow! I loved the logic of it, the remorseless seemingly paradoxical logic of it – and was delighted to discover Lucio Colletti’s Penguin edition of Marx’s early writings in which the link to Rousseau is made clear (a volume on which I squandered the book tokens that came with one of the school economics or poetry prize). It also led me to a volume in the School Library Selected Writings of the German Idealists (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel) of which, it is fair to say, I understood nothing.

By this stage, aged 18, I have (unsurprisingly) had enough of school so head off to Durham to read Law and Economics (lasted 1 week), then Law and Politics (lasted 1 year), then Politics and Sociology (with lots of attendance at Philosophy Lectures – can I change again? No. Oh well.) . Law did briefly have two advantages in that I was encouraged to read Hart’s The Concept of Law and Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (I discovered Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision by myself.) But otherwise it involved too many cases and seemed too much like a life of intellectual crossword puzzles. The Politics Department had hard-drinking political theorists like the blind idealist Alan Milne, the fantastical Oakeshott student David Manning and the astonishingly well-read Henry Tudor. The Sociology Department had the utterly quixotic Irving Velody (later to found the journal History of the Human Sciences). And this was a great time to study these subjects – Jacques Derrida Of Grammatology, Writing and Differance, Margins of Philosophy, Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality vol.1, Jurgen Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action, Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue, Richard Rorty Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Charles Taylor Sources of the Self, Bernard Williams Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. It was nirvana – or something like that.

I owe a debt to all these books because, for better or worse, what or who I am would not be possible without them.

(Why don’t you write and tell us at politics|upside|down about the books that inspired your interest in politics and political issues?)

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