As the year hurtles towards its close, I’ve spent more time reading than writing. It has been a positively luxurious experience that has nevertheless left me with the conundrum of having far too many pieces to put forward here. The following suggestions are thus comprised of those I most urgently want other people to read so that I can selfishly have the joy of dissecting them in conversation!
To begin, Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze is an interesting inquiry into the way that ‘whiteness’ and Western imaginaries of Africa have shaped visions of international order. It is a much needed contribution to the field of International Relations, complementing the recent path breaking scholarship on race and the global order from scholars such as Gurminder Bhambra, Robbie Shilliam and Robert Vitalis. It’s the kind of thinking that needs to penetrate beyond academic boundaries.
In that regard, I think Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity is one of the most important books of the year. I’ve had a copy of the book lying on my bedside table since it came out in September, silently demanding my attention with the striking geometric patterns of its cover. Appiah’s scholarship has long been a staple in my thinking about race, culture and identity and his writing is always such a pleasure to read. This particular book is based on the BBC Reith Lectures Appiah gave in 2016. As such the volume is intended first and foremost as a provocation. It is an invitation for public discussion about the implications of identity politics rather than an entirely scholarly tract. Nonetheless The Lies That Bind is underpinned by Appiah’s dazzling erudition. Tales from his family history are framed by scholarly references and lucid philosophical thinking.
My final recommendations entail, as one the authors, Vahni Capildeo, puts it, ‘an embarrassment of poets.’ Venus as a Bear is Capildeo’s eighth volume of poetry. All of her work is excellent but I think this collection might be my favourite. Not least because she draws inspiration from the Ashmolean Museum’s collections, conjuring up the inner lives of exhibition objects in linguistically rich ways.
Museums are something of a theme for me at the moment as I’ve also just devoured J. Michael Martinez’ Museum of the Americas. His work is starkly political, studded with haunting portrayals of the immigration and human rights crises we’re living through. In my own research, many of the activists I study from the French empire used poetry to protest inhuman colonial practices and discrimination. The medium offered a unique way of bearing witness and expressing pain that spoke not only to contemporary audiences but have stood the test of time to haunt present readers. I think Martinez’ work is similarly potent.
Of course, in reading Martinez, I had to return to Aimé Césaire’s long form poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal/ Notebook of a Return to My Native Country, as well as his political essay Discours sur le colonialisme/ Discourse on Colonialism. Both are staples of French political writing quite apart from being literary masterpieces.
And finally, just in case these suggestions don’t sufficiently quench your thirst for poetry, Dan Chiasson over at the New Yorker has a great list of the poetry that made him grateful in 2018.
Sorry, I read nothing this November.
Sure, I read for my class. I read student work. I read my own dissertation. I read drafts of colleagues’ essays. But I did none of that thoughtful reading this column is supposed to highlight. Instead, I watched hours and hours of network sitcoms. I compulsively played video games. I drank beer. I looked on Twitter. In my defense, it’s been a hard month. California burned. Deadlines approached. The hours of sunlight wasted away.
I wanted to read, believe me, I really did. Sometimes I’d even open up one of those big important books I’ve been meaning to read and get a page or two in before dozing off. I started Middlemarch back in the summer and I’m still only a quarter of the way through. (Though I’ve pretended to have read Middlemarch for years.) I’ve half-skimmed a few books on the history of gunpowder—reading for a side project that’s stalled. If someone mentions Sheila Heti’s Motherhood at a dinner party I’ll inevitably gush: “It’s next on my list! I hear such great things!” But I don’t know who I’m fooling.
I worry: am I really cut out to be an academic if I’ve wasted so much time on such childish distractions? The pressure of academia today is not just that we are expected to do so much rigorous, competitive work. It’s that there are so few tenure track academic jobs left that it feels like our only chance to succeed is to be perfect, to devote every scrap of our soul to this project of becoming an academic. Every human falter I suffer feels like a sign: I am bound to fail. Even to admit that I want a tenure track job is arrogant—do I really think that I’m so exceptional? But would an exceptional academic waste over two hundred hours playing Civilization 6, as I have?
I know, of course, that this will pass. Not every falter is fatal. Soon I will pick up a book again, and read it, and have deep thoughts about it, and I write those deep thoughts down. But as this November declines, it’s hard not to just to turn away from it all, and instead waste an evening in gentle meaningless haze.
This month, I returned to an old classic, JGA Pocock’s The Ancient Constution and the Feudal Law (1957). Though the subject matter may not seem immediately enticing to all readers of the blog, it is a book worth reading for its intellectual ambition and analytic clarity. Pocock’s goal, as he describes in the book, was to explore the historiography of historical thought in seventeenth-century England. In the process, he uncovered critical arguments that are now fundamental to how we think about the intellectual history not just of early modern England but most of western Europe.
Pocock’s chief argument was that early modern English thinkers thought of the past mostly in terms of the common law. The ‘common law mind’, as he dubbed it, was central to considering questions of political authority and debates about the common law were at the heart of political argument in the early Stuart period and during the English civil war. English thinkers, he argued with some exaggeration, conceived of the common law as stemming from immemorial customs which, at least some thought, remained unchanged despite the Norman conquest of 1066.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Pocock’s assertion that English ‘common law mind’ was insular and largely untouched by continental legal traditions. Though the argument has not stood the test of time, Pocock’s was one of the first attempts at comparative legal and intellectual history and looked at developments in France in particular to explain what he saw as the distinctiveness of English historical thought.
The book gave birth to a cottage industry which has proven to enormously productive and influential over the years. It generated immense interest not just in the history of the common law but also inspired scholars to think broadly about the nature of political debate in early modern England and its connections with developments on the continent. Most importantly, after more than sixty years since publication, it remains a model of intellectual clarity that scholars, both budding and established, should aspire to.