Best Books 2018

It’s the time of year for ‘Best of’ lists, and there’s no need for me to resist the temptation. Here is a list of the what I consider, thinking quickly, to be the best 10 books I’ve read this year, in terms of ‘fun’ of one sort or another – they were not all published this year, by any means, and I read them for all sorts of motivated or arbitrary reasons. Some are academic, some not so, all of them were thought provoking, and most of them are good for reading in the bath. So, in no particular order, here they are:

1). Eric Foner, 1983, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its legacy. Bought for £1 from the Bookbarn, a withdrawn copy from the Seeley Library in Cambridge, a precursor to Foner’s monumental book on Reconstructioon published a few years later.

2). Mary McCarthy, 1972, The Stones of Florence & Venice Observed. Great reading if you’ve been to at least one of those places. Maybe not so much if you haven’t.

3). John Forrester and Laura Cameron, 2017, Freud in Cambridge. A book about influence and inspiration, about reception and resonance – and about the type of man who is prone to self-analysis.

4). Mariana Mazzucato, 2018, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. A clear, simple elaboration of a very radical, old fashioned, but still valid proposition – that price and value are not the same thing, and that the relationship between them is rather complex. If you teach Marx, Harvey, etc, etc, then this book should be on the your reading list to provide proper context, both contemporary and historical.

5). Nick Clarke, Will Jennings, Jonathan Moss, & Garry Stoker, 2018, The Good Politician: Folk Theories, Political Interaction, and the Rise of Anti-Politics. Dangerous stuff – empirically robust theory-building, essential reading if you want to think seriously about things subsumed under the heading of ‘populism’.

6). Graham Greene, 1951, The End of the Affair. I read this in two sittings, on a plane to and from Cape Town, and was inspired by this to try to write 500 words a day, like the more or less reliable narrator. I’m still trying. It’s easier to imagine changing one’s routines when stuck in a tube for hours than to actually do so, it turns out.

7) David Hepworth, 2017, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars. A kind of genealogy of a what one might now think of as a residual aspect of popular culture. It’s more fun than that makes it sound.

8). Bruce Robbins, 2017, The Beneficiary. The best book about the ethics and politics of living in a stretched-out world of commodity production and markets and excessive responsibilities since, well, either this book or this one (neither of which it cites, but hey, nobody’s perfect).

9). Rowan Williams, 2015, Meeting God in Paul. I bought this accidentally while in a cathedral, it’s a short and simple introduction well suited to the non-believer, by a very smart man.

10). Shirley Jackson, 1949, The Lottery and other stories. Ordinary stuff, scary stuff.

Bite Size Theory

“To conceive of intellectuals as professionals is to put critical thought in social context. To put thought in context is to accuse it of self-interest; that is what social context usually means. But self-interested thought, from the point of view of the ideal, is no longer thought at all. And by the same criterion, it is certainly not critical or radical or adversarial thought. This is the fatal logic of the intellectuals’ disappearance: the more intellectuals are seen as grounded in society, the less they are seen as truly critical or oppositional, hence the less they are themselves. The less they are themselves, the more they can only seem to be glimpsed, for the last time, in the act of vanishing.”

Bruce Robbins, 1993, Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (Verso).

Postcolonial discontents

For anyone interested in the debate aroused by Vivek Chibber’s critique of postcolonial theory for being insufficiently Marxist-in-the-right-sort-of-way, which has included a robust response from Partha Chatterjee, Bruce Robbins has a review of Chibber’s book at n+1, and Chibber has a response to Robbins at Jacobin, to which Robbins has in turn his own response at n+1 again. Phew.