The New Canon: What's the most influential book of the past 20 years?

Congratulations to  Jessica Riskin, whose book The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick  (Chicago, 2016) has been named one of the most influential books of the past 20 years by the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

The New Canon: What's the most influential book o the past 20 years?

Each year, more than 15,000 academic books are published in North America. A scant few will reach beyond their core audience of disciplinary specialists. Fewer still will enter the public consciousness.

We invited scholars from across the academy to tell us what they saw as the most influential book published in the past 20 years. (Some respondents named books slightly outside our time frame, but we included them anyway.) We asked them to select books — academic or not, but written by scholars — from within or outside their own fields. It was up to our respondents to define “influential,” but we asked them to explain why they chose the books they did. Here are their answers.

What It Means to Be Human

Historians can annoy people when they announce that there’s nothing new under the sun — that wherever we are, we’ve been there before. But some version of that sensibility is among the more useful contributions that history offers. There is a basic palette of predicaments that cultures confront, and a basic set of resources available to make sense of them and to do whatever can be done about them. Our current predicaments are indeed unique, but the cultural materials that make them up and that we may use to respond to them have recurrent features.

Consider the increasingly pertinent problem of artificial intelligence. Machines already do things that we recently thought they could never do. Not long ago, it was inconceivable that computers could ever beat a chess grandmaster, and now we take it as a matter of course that they do. Feats of heroic calculation once defined what it was to be uniquely human; they no longer do. Once it was thought that only human beings could learn; now machines learn, and their ability to learn accelerates. We’re accustomed to algorithmically controlled robots making cars and picking products in warehouses; now we face a world in which machines make medical diagnoses, write passable poetry, and provide emotional support to the demented and the lonely.

This is a new world, yet interest in the similarities and the differences between human beings and machines goes back many centuries — and Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick(University of Chicago Press, 2016) is a rich and resonant telling of that long history. Her book starts with the intricate automata that fascinated people from antiquity to the Middle Ages; it goes on to the early modern versions that inspired Descartes to conceive of human bodies as “earthen machines” — and then to the famous defecating ducks, chess-playing Turks, and mechanical female organists of the Enlightenment and early 19th century, ending with the now-familiar work of factory robots and Turing test-passing expert systems.