Timothy Ferris gave us some smart, clever answers to our questions about reading, working, and living.
What was the book that most influenced your life, and why?
There is no one book, but I have long returned to Lao Tzu’s little masterpiece, the title of which is usually translated as The Book of Tao. Among many other things it reminds us that something silent, invisible, and unknown resides at the center of every system of thought. (Rather like the invisible hole in the center of the retina, one might say.) Kurt Godel made much the same point about mathematics, much more recently. The failure to understand it and keep it in mind has permitted many grave errors, such as fanatical adherence to absolutist systems of thought and belief.
Lao Tzu is said to have dictated the five thousand words of The Book of Tao reluctantly, at the behest of the city gatekeeper, who prevailed on him to leave behind something of his wisdom before retiring forever to live in the mountains. (This was in Ch'u, the modern Ling-pao, on the Yellow River in Honan Province, somewhere between the sixth and the second century B.C.) Its opening lines are equal to any in literature:
"The way that can be told is not the eternal Way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. He who rids himself of desire can see the mystery; he who fails to rid himself of desire can see only the manifestations."
What are your ten favorite books, and why?
I really don’t categorize things by favorites, but here are a few good books that I happen to be reading at present, in the order that they are stacked on the table:
… plus Homer and Proust, whom I try to read every day.
- Gertrude Stein, Writings 1903-1932. In the estimable Library of America series. I set some paragraphs of a Stein essay to music last night, and it worked rather well!
- Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Wonderful writing.
- Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science. This hasn’t been published yet, so I’ll not spoil the suspense by saying anything about it. [The book was published after this interview and is now available. -- Ed.]
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 50th anniversary edition. Pleasing edition of a book I often re-read.
- Czeslaw Milosz, To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays and his New and Collected Poems. Tremendous range; almost comparable to the “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting” show at MOMA in NYC.
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. As fresh and strangely dream-like today as when it was first published, more than half a century ago.
- Roy Porter, Enlightenment. Solid work by a vigorous writer who, sadly, died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bicycle a few weeks ago.
- A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh. I got this at the suggestion of Menno Meyjes, who wrote a screenplay from it, and am enjoying it.
Who are your favorite writers?
You know, “favorites” questions really haven’t paid their dues, have they? So perhaps I’ll just say that a few of the living writers whose work I particularly like are Annie Dillard, Jim Harrison, David McCullough, Sylvia Nasar, Joyce Oates, P. J. O’Rourke, Jim Salter, Hunter Thompson, Steve Weinberg, Gary Wills…not to mention the poets; there are so many strong poets writing today, among them W. S. Merwin, Les A. Murray, and Wislawa Szymborska…from which one’s thoughts turn to songwriters, like Lou Reed, and the most influential artist working in any medium, Bob Dylan…
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad question after all.
What else can you tell us about yourself, in terms of likes and dislikes, ways to unwind, etc.?
In the Works
I like race cars, sailboats, football, tennis, strong art, and facts; starlight and sunrise; fashionable women; literate cab drivers; I don’t dislike much of anything, really, except dogs (they’re so abject), the well known evils of the world, and received opinions about how to banish them (the evils, not the dogs) .… Is this starting to read like a personals ad?
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Ferris says he often keeps several projects in the works at once, many of which are described in detail on his web site. He told us, "I’m scripting the film version of my book Seeing in the Dark, and hope to soon be writing a new book called Science & Liberty, which will argue that science created the democratic revolution that has changed the world over the past 400 years. From this perspective I will attempt to shed some light on current events."
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