It’s sad, I know, but one of my favourite places is the Bookbarn, in Somerset on the road from Bristol to Wells. It is, as the name suggests, a big barn full of old books (my partner refuses to ever come along with me, because the smell of second-hand books repulses her just a little). The books here seem to consist mainly of discontinued library stock, from everywhere from the Cleveland County Library and the former Bath College of Higher Education (precursor to Bath Spa) to the Seeley Historical Library in Cambridge. If you were so inclined, you could acquire pretty much any book written about the Royal Family in the last 60 years here, or, alternatively, construct your own personal archive of every single Open University social science course from The Dimensions of Society (1975) onwards.
The Bookbarn even has a whole Geography section, which is more than you can say about most academic bookshops these days. It’s about 12 square feet of shelves, containing books mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, with a sprinkling from 1990s and more recently. I was there on Saturday, and I could have bought all of my old school textbooks for both O and A level, but thought better of it. You could, too, collect a number of ‘classics’ of modern academic Geography, including Harvey’s Explanation in Geography, Haggett’s Locational Analysis, pretty much anything you might want by Dudley Stamp, Wilbur Zelinsky’s A Prologue to Population Geography, different editions of Wooldridge and East’s The Spirit and Purpose of Geography, the original version of Sparks’ Geomorphology, or the first Progress in Geography edited collection from 1969.
These shelves offer a snapshot of how Geography was represented in public life in the UK somewhere between about 1970 and the mid-1980s, in so far as the books acquired by school and University libraries but also by local public libraries are an indication of that. Standing there, in front of them all, you get a strong sense of the 1970s having been a little bit of a golden age for Geography publishing in the UK, with a wide range of book length research monographs and edited collections reviewing and promoting geography as a science, and in particular human geography as a social science (an age when publishers such as Heinemann, Croom Helm, Arnold, and Hutchinson all had important geography lists it seems). Many of the books on these shelves are ones I can remember, at least from the covers if not necessarily from actually reading them, from when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s. They seemed a little dated even then, which might have been a design issue in some cases, but also had to do with the way in which the intellectual substance of many of the books you can find in the Bookbarn had, already by then, been framed as standing on one said of a divide between ‘radical’ and not-so-radical geography, which was overlain onto the mutually hostile methodological chauvinisms on both sides. I liked the radical stuff (the only book on the shelves at the Bookbarn which really counts as an influential one for my own intellectual formation is 1984’s Geography and Gender: An Introduction to Feminist Geography, by the IBG’s Women and Geography Study Group). Amazingly in hindsight, did an undergraduate degree in which one didn’t actually have to take any notice of ‘quantitative’ and statistical approaches at all if you didn’t want to (I don’t as a result share the antipathy towards those approaches often felt by people once forced to sit through what, way back when, were not very well taught classes promoting them; nor the sense of self-righteousness often attached to ‘qualitative’ approaches that is the flip-side of generation-shaping ‘Bad-Stats’ experiences). The books I have in mind (some of which I bought – they are dead cheap), are expressions of the “methodological ferment” that transformed Geography from the 1950s onwards, primarily through the adoption, development and refinement of statistical techniques and mathematical modelling to spatial patterns, processes and forms. You can trace the emergence of whole new sub-disciplines in the wake of this modernization in the books in the Bookbarn: of urban geography, for example, in Harold Carter’s The Study of Urban Geography, David Herbert’s Urban Geography: A Social Perspective, and Ron Johnston’s City and Society; or of development geography, in Akin Mabogunje’s The Development Process: A Spatial Perspective or David Grigg’s The Harsh Lands; as well as the traces of approaches that sound suddenly contemporary again (e.g. The Political Geography of the Oceans). The books gathering dust on these shelves were, I guess, integral to the institutionalisation of geography-as-(social)science as higher education expanded during the 1970s, and are testament to what I can’t help thinking of as ‘IBG-Geography’, expressions of an assertive discipline framed in no small part by turning away from the associations of geography with merely descriptive accounts of far away places In his wonderful genealogy of modern social science in Britain, which is very geographical without saying much about Geography, Identities and Social Change in Britain, Mike Savage does identify human geography as exemplifying the adoption of social scientific expertise in what were traditionally conceived of and practised as humanities disciplines: “Foremost amongst these was human geography, which largely abandoned its focus on the culture and traditions of fixed regional spaces and forged close relationships with sociology and anthropology and self-identified as a social science.” It’s the books through which this process of self-identification was enacted that are all sitting in the Bookbarn. You can even find here evidence of that moment when it was possible to imagine human geography and physical geography having common intellectual grounds, and not only ones based in shared methodologies, but even in shared philosophical assumptions (I picked up a copy of Bob Bennett’s and Dick Chorley’s Environmental Systems: Philosophy, Analysis and Control, which is rather prescient in its presentation of the synthesizing promise of systems theory, now all the rage again in somewhat different, resilient, form).
Driving home (composing this blog in my head), it occurred to me that this ‘sample’ of books captures the becoming-relevant of geography in this period. You can pick up a copy of David Smith’s Human Geography: A Welfare Approach (with its great front cover) alongside his more technical Patterns in Human Geography, both of which explicitly question the sorts of problems geographers sought to address and the values they sought to advance in addressing them. You can find traces of the divisions between different images of the vocation of geography (stresses and strains captured in the very title of Michael Chisholm’s Human Geography: Evolution or Revolution?). The recurring focus is on issues of spatial analysis, where this involves the delimitation of distinctively spatial processes and spatial forms, but none of these books are aridly methodological – there is plenty of social theory embedded in these books, just not perhaps the sort of (post-)Marxist thought that had become so central to defining the meaning of social theory by the time I was an undergraduate. For example, the OU’s co-published Fundamentals of Human Geography reader, from 1978, includes a piece by Claus Offe on advanced capitalism and the welfare state, a fact which in no small part captures something of the taken-for-granted background of quite a lot of the substance held on these shelves. Assertions of the importance of a newly robust social scientific human geography – such as Studies in Human Geography, a 1973 collection edited by Chisholm and Brian Rodgers and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council as it was then, with the intention to “focus attention on the substantive contribution of geographers to several fields of study” and aimed as much at ‘non-geographers’ as at ‘practising geographers’ (I’m still practising) – were articulated in a context in which it was still assumed that a relatively stable institutional field of ‘planning’ and ‘regional policy’ existed into which geographers could speak with authority and influence. By the time I was an undergraduate, this stability no longer existed, and I was inducted into geography in a context in which it was the dissolution of that stable field which generated all the most exciting intellectual energies (you can pick up a copy of Martin and Rowthorn’s The Geography of De-Industrialisation at the Bookbarn too, from 1986, a book which pretty much captures the moment, as do the slightly later of OU edited course books on The Economy in Question and Politics in Transition, which are also there). By the time I was a graduate student, in the early 1990s, as those stable fields of ‘relevance’ further dwindled, the sorts of “critical human geography” that I settled into was rapidly reshaped around theoretically sophisticated forms of analysis which were really good at identifying the possibilities of political purchase for academic analysis in situations where it seemed, at first look, to have disappeared (a pattern of analysis which continues to frame an awful lot of work in human geography, probably including most of mine).
My excuse for spending my Saturday afternoon leafing through books I mainly didn’t read 30 years ago and mainly won’t be reading now (with some exceptions), if I need one, is that I do have a professional interest in the more or less recent profile of Geography. Amongst many other things, I’m meant to be editing a Companion on the history and philosophy of geography (a rather daunting task; I’m not doing it on my own), so I am telling myself that all this browsing really counted as research, of a sort at least. It’s interesting, for example, to notice just how many of the old books you can find at the Bookbarn were concerned not merely with applying quantitative methods to spatial problems, but rather are explicitly engaged with the challenge of theorising issues that are “peculiarly geographical”. Not thinking of the spatial as just a residual, or as an externality, or merely contextual, remains a compelling issue across social science, and it is one theme that might well connect what are often still presented as incompatible qualitative and the quantitative ‘paradigms’ in geography (does anyone still use that word?). It’s not, for sure, an issue over which strands of quantitative geography and traditions of spatial analysis hold a monopoly, but my afternoon in the company of all these old books reminded me that it is this theoretical issue that was at the core of the process of making human geography from the 1950s onwards, and it’s this theoretical issue that might well remain central to a distinctively geographical imagination of the challenges of ‘spatializing the social sciences’ (and humanities, I suppose).
I spent much of this year trying to write my own book, which ended up being all-consuming in various ways. I have read plenty of stuff in a “need-to-look-at-this-for-the-book-even-though-it-won’t-make-the-final-cut” kind of way. So it’s been a year of reading instrumentally, if you see what I mean. There are various books I haven’t read but which I want/need to read soon, for fun or for new/deferred research and teaching projects. Amongst others, they include:
- Ivan Vladislavic, 101 Detectives.
- James McPherson, The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters.
- Patrick Modiano, The Search Warrant.
- Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.
- Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt.
- James Ferguson, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution.
- Steven Friedman, Race, Class and Power: Harold Wolpe and the Radical Critique of Apartheid.
- Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Towards a Media History of Documents.
- Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism.
- Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, Fast Policy: Experimental Statecraft at the Thresholds of Neoliberalism.
I once saw Spalding Gray live, in Atlanta, performing the monologue Monster in a Box, about the tribulations of writing his first novel. It was at a time when I was wondering whether to even start doing a PhD on, never mind finishing it, which took a while. I’ve been reminded of this, and the image of the lumbering physical presence of the tome itself, because I have been hauling an unfinished manuscript of my own around for a few months now. Actually, I have been carrying it around on a USB stick. I am in Vancouver now, for a month’s ‘research retreat’, as I like to think of it. So the first thing I have managed to do is print the whole thing off – all 209,000 words of a first draft, more than twice as long as it’s meant to be. I’ve also been re-thinking the title. That’s progress, right?
I’m now sitting in libraries or coffee shops (not the beach), trying to cut it down and make it cohere and ensure it has lots of narrative continuity (all those things you tell PhD students to do as they approach the finishing line). The young man sitting next to me this morning reading Poulantzas’s Fascism and Dictatorship provoked one of those “Oh no, I should probably say something about that”-moments that tend to beset you when you are trying to finish something like this (another way in which I feel like I’m trying to complete a PhD all over again, again). Last time I wrote a book all on my own the bits that I cut out of the final version, quite rightly, lived on as subsequently re-worked journal papers, and actually have ended up animating parts of the argument of this new book. So this time I think I might just blog the bits I cut out, so that I can slough off those spare thoughts and move on properly once it’s all done and dusted.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m off to sharpen the pencils.
Routledge have a new research-focussed book series, the Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series. I am the Series Editor. Full details of the Series can be found here: Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series. Do feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about the Series, and especially if you have any book ideas you might think will fit. Here is the overview of what the series aims to cover (the list of topics is indicative only):
“The Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series offers a forum for original and innovative research that explores the changing geographies of political life. It seeks to draw into focus emerging interdisciplinary conversations about the spaces through which power is exercised, legitimized and contested. Titles within the series range from empirical investigations to theoretical engagements, and authors include scholars working in overlapping fields including political geography, political theory, development studies, political sociology, international relations and urban politics. The series seeks to engage with a series of key debates about innovative political forms, including topics such as transnational mobilization, global justice movements, global governance, the right to the city, the commons, new public spaces, cosmopolitanism, the digitalization of governance and contention, material politics, new localisms, and policy mobilities; and to address key concepts of political analysis such as scale, territory and public space. This series provides a forum for cutting edge research and new theoretical perspectives that reflect the wealth of research currently being undertaken around new forms of spatial politics.”
I accidentally came across this great blog today, bookshy, dedicated to contemporary African literature. In addition to reviews, it also includes a page of African book covers, and a link to a whole tumblr site of even more images of book covers, old and new.
There is, of course, a whole political-economy of the covers of African books. Apparently.
For anyone currently concerned with books and shelves…..
A while ago now, I mentioned a coffee-table book I had been given about the ideal bookshelf. One of the contributors to this was Jonathan Lethem, who I may or may not have known about before. But we’ll come back to that. Lethem’s books also appeared on quite a few of the ideal bookshelves of other contributors to this volume, I seem to remember. I particularly liked Lethem’s thoughts on his choices of favourite books (not one of which I have read). I underlined this:
“The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passed the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it – it’s just an excellent way to waste your life”.
I’ve ended up spending quite a lot of time in the company of Lethem, more or less accidentally bumping into some of his books over the last couple of months. Over Easter, in Covent Garden, I bought a copy of his collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, under pressure from a 6 year old imploring me to hurry up and choose something. I bought it on the basis of the title, the colourful spine, and the vague recollection of the author’s name, and because it seemed to include essays on things like Otis Redding and Devo. It’s what Lethem calls a ‘bloggish book’ of short reviews, essays, and one or two fiction pieces, ranging from serious subjects like living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11 to a range of pop culture reflections on topics such as discovering The Go-Betweens. The title essay is a little manifesto on the creativity of copying, borrowing, and re-using – first published in Harper’s Magazine, it performs a grand exercise of plagiarism in developing ideas about the gift economy and public commons as the dynamic source of cultural life (the ideas and practice are further developed in Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials, which you can find out about along with other bits and pieces at Lethem’s website.
A week later, I came across a collection of his short stories while on holiday in Devon (the third surprising encounter within 10 minutes while strolling down the main street in Totnes), and then, a couple of days later, still on holiday, found a copy of one of his novels, Motherless Brooklyn, a great ‘crime novel’ of sorts.
Having spent some time with Lethem while on holiday, I then enjoyed his company again while in LA for a conference at the beginning of April. At The Last Bookstore, I found a copy of The Disappointment Artist, another non-fiction collection, but with a more coherent theme, a series of semi-autobiographical reflections on his attachments to things like comics, or pop music, or the films of John Cassavetes (that’s a great bookstore by the way, playing the soundtrack from Friday Night Lights while I was there, which was lovely). One thing I like about Lethem’s writing is a recurring concern with this issue of attachment, attunement, obsession, and immersion in specific cultural worlds – life as lived through the medium of fandom, being taken over by a series of works of some sort.
When I got back from LA, I then noticed that one of the books that Amazon had been prompting me to buy for a while was a book about the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. This is just one in a series of books on ‘classic’ albums, not the sort of thing I normally read at all (honest). Now though, having spent the previous month acquainting myself with Lethem, I noticed that the author of this little book was none other than the very same Jonathan Lethem. My algorithmic avatar suddenly coincided exactly with my situational self.
The Fear of Music book is really excellent, if you like the sort of thing that Lethem likes, which it seems that I do, to a certain extent at least. He writes about the record by tacking back and forth between the experience of listening to it in 1979 as a 15 year old and his current, adult self. So, it turns out not just to be a nerdy fan book at all, in so far as it develops a serious account of the relations between one’s old, current, and next self. Writing about this record in the space between ‘the boy in his room’ and ‘the aging fan writing these words’, Lethem brings to light the degree to which avowals of cultural authority, taste, and judgment often turn on the performance of knowingness that is a disavowal of processes of learning and discovery – expressed in the the trick, or is it a temptation, of appearing to always already have known about an artist, or a chain of influences, or a line of significance that, in fact, one once knew nothing about, and which came after one’s initial seizure by a work: “The mind making retrospective sense of the artwork is a liar. Or a lie. Unspooling expertise and arcana, the critic spins a web of knowingness that veils its manufacturer, a spider shy of the light”. This theme of the knowing character of cultural taste is a feature of other essays by Lethem I have read, including ‘Dancing about architecture’, where he writes about the dorky knowingness of being a fan, where being able to spot influences and point out references to other sources is analysed as “a revenge of the seduced”. One way of processing one’s own capture by a song, a band, a novelist, a theorist perhaps, is to place one’s pleasure into a wider context of knowledge and prior disposition – it’s a way of acknowledging the force of the attraction while presenting this as something that still somehow remains under one’s own control.
Most recently, in Liverpool a couple of weekends ago, I came across another of Lethem’s novels, The Fortress of Solitude, again while stealing a minute from one of my children to book browse (or was it sharing a minute?). It’s about growing up in Brooklyn, again, and being a fan, and gentrification, and about not quite knowing what’s going on.
So I feel like Lethem is my new imaginary friend, he seems to share some of the same tastes as me, in films (I like Westerns too), in music, in literary theory, though he is, inevitably, smarter and more clued in than me on all these things and others. He seems like the older brother I never had; or needed. And he has a nice way of articulating the relations between learning, knowing, and pretending that make up whole worlds of intellectual anxiety and authority.
And I also identify with the idea of ‘used bookstore lag’ that Lethem refers to when describing his own pattern of learning and knowing – it resonates strongly with me, suggesting both a sense of discovering ideas late, after their time has passed; but also of discovering ideas unexpectedly, of receiving them as gifts of chance.
Just came across this little essay by Francesca Mari on shelving books….