William McNeil, Plagues & Peoples: This had a kind of revelatory quality to me, the idea that everything you thought was important about history was actually kind of trivial and the real determinants of human destiny are something else entirely. Guns, Germs, and Steel is arguably the better book in this genre, but I only ever read it because I’d read P&P first so I’m giving McNeil the nod.
Tyler Cowen (who started the meme);
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography. This got me thinking about how one's ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime. Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.
Judith Harris, The Nurture Assumption. Harris sucked me into the exciting world of behavioral genetics - and got me thinking about the implications for the meaning of life.
A Guide to Rational Living, by Albert Ellis. I hit some bumps in my last year in the Ph.D. program at UCLA. I got extreme writer's block and was getting nowhere on my dissertation. I write about this in Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, co-authored with Charley Hooper. I went to see a therapist, Roger Callahan, who gave every one of his new patients a copy. That one book has helped me deal with so many life situations.
Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Information Rules. Again, you may find that the examples seem old, but no better book has been written on the economic issues of the information-driven economy. Among other things, this book convinced me that Price Discrimination Explains Everything.
Off the Books by Sudhir Venkatesh. I hate to add something so recent from a guy who turned into one of the “superstars” of sociology, but this was one of the books which got me excited about the kind of things ethnography could do for your analysis. Like Jacobs, Venkatesh finds all sorts of order where others only see chaos.
A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. I dug into this book with the intention of saying what was really, really wrong with it. Instead, I ended up feeling like I understood political philosophy.
Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior. So clever, so unassuming, so it made me want to be an economist. Then I took some economics and it wasn’t much like Schelling at all.
William S. Cleveland, Visualizing Data. “This book presents a set of graphical methods for displaying data”. Does it ever. Tufte gets the Presidential Commissions and the high media profile, and deserves all that, but Cleveland shows you how it’s done in practice and wrote the software that lets you code it yourself. For me it opened up the world of serious thinking on data and model visualization for quantitative data.
Russell Arben Fox;
Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson: A Revisionist View. I think I must have underlined every sentence in this book. It was the first book I'd read that made me think both critically and practically about all the stuff I'd been reading about "republicanism" for years.