From time to time, readers ask me what books have made the biggest difference in my life. I am not sure how to answer that question because the books that happened to set me off in a particular direction at a particular time may have no special message for others -- and can even be books I no longer believe in today.
The first book that got me interested in political issues was Actions and Passions by Max Lerner, which I read at age 19. It was a collection of his newspaper columns, none of which I remember today and all of which were vintage liberalism, which even Max Lerner himself apparently had second thoughts about in later years.
The writings of Karl Marx -- especially The Communist Manifesto -- had the longest lasting effect on me as a young man and led me to become and remain a Marxist throughout my twenties. I wouldn't recommend this today either, except as an example of a masterpiece of propaganda.
There was no book that changed my mind about being on the political left. Life experience did that -- especially the experience of seeing government at work from the inside.
The book that permanently made me a sadder and wiser man was Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. To follow one of the greatest civilizations of all time as it degenerated and fractured, even before being torn apart by its enemies, was especially painful in view of the parallels to what is happening in America in our own times.
The fall of the Roman Empire was not just a matter of changing rulers or political systems. It was the collapse of a whole civilization -- the destruction of an economy, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of many educational institutions.
It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Western Europe rose again to the level it had once reached back in Roman times.
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