Books this year

At the end of 2021, I published a list of & short commentary on the books I had read during that year, partly to amplify books written by women (and non-binary) authors, partly to highlight the persistent (and intersectional) process of devaluing, ‘forgetting’, or unknowing work written by women. This list is shorter; not all books are by women/NB authors (though most are), and I also wrote several blog posts (and articles) that engage with some of the work listed here in more detail (if you’re after that sort of thing). Judging by the length of the list, I read less (some of this has to do with general exhaustion/burnout, and some with other stuff that was happening in the year, including funding deadlines, running a new project, and leading EDI in my Department). I also like to think I read deeper.

Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life

This eagerly anticipated book not only covers some of my favourite philosophers (Anscombe; Murdoch) but also presents a carefully executed study of the social and historical setting of Oxford (‘ordinary-language’) philosophy, so 10/10.

Oh, I’ve also read the other book on the Anscombe/Foot/Midgley/Murdoch ‘quartet’ that came out, only to check whether there was any accuracy in (multiple) reviewers’ perennial tendency to ascribe analytical acumen to books written by men, and ‘biographical’ and ‘descriptive’ detail to books written by women (which is in and of itself a kind of epistemic injustice/epistemic positioning, by the way). There isn’t. Thought so.

Christine Korsgaard, Self-constitution: agency, identity, integrity

It is perhaps a truism that if you start doing moral philosophy you never stray too far from Kant. True or not, this book was probably one of the best ways to come back to it. As I’ve written in a blog post that engages with the book in slightly more detail, over the past couple of years I have become increasingly interested in problems of normative theory – something I’ve been strongly opposed to most of my career thus far (I even wrote a PhD on why we’re prone to confuse epistemic with moral and/or political sentiments). Korsgaard’s approach to theories of identity and agency is decisively contemporary and has significant implications for how we think about the ability to choose, so it fit the bill perfectly. It is also one of the books that confirm the rule that women philosophers tend to write better than most people.

Sheila Jasanoff et al, Uncertainty

Disclaimer: I actually have a chapter in this volume, initially developed as a forum response in Boston Review (the text is part of my broader work on agency, unknowing, and resistance). I think all contributions are worth reading because they reflect the general debate about knowledge, prediction, and what science can do – and thus both its highs and its lows.

Michelle Murphy, Sick building syndrome and the problem of uncertainty

Speaking of uncertainty: I think I initially started re-reading Michelle Murphy’s famous monograph last year because of my work on Covid-19 and institutional forms of ‘unknowing’ when it comes to things such as airborne spread. Reading it, I was reminded not only how brilliant, well-written, and pioneering Murphy’s work was, but also how institutional ways of ‘unknowing’ function when it comes to access to knowledge: namely, none of the libraries of the institution I work for have this book in physical form (it is accessible in online form), despite its pioneering status in the fields of public health, STS, and policy studies, all of which the institution specializes in. The availability of physical books in the library means students may encounter it just by browsing the shelves; books available online only get discovered if already assigned to the syllabus, which already requires someone (someone in a position of power, at that) to recognize and validate the book as key, mandatory, or at least relevant. Really makes you think about the materiality of objects, that.     

Michelle Murphy, Economization of life

Once on a Murphy roll I kept going, so I bought and started reading (for the first time) Murphy’s 2017 Economization of life. It chimed well with the piece on ‘slow death’ (building on Berlant), as well as with a few other pieces on bio- and necro-politics I was writing at the time, but its emphasis on reproductive rights and reproductive justice was also a 10/10 in the year in which the US Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade.

Max Liboiron, Pollution is colonialism

OK, full disclosure: I read most of this book in 2021 but it is so good I wanted to feature it again and in more detail. Actually, detail aside: this is simply the best book to read if you are doing any sort of scientific work. Or activism. Or politics. Or just, you know, living in the vicinity of institutions of knowledge production. Just read it. Seriously.

Cara New Daggett, The Birth of Energy

This is a really good example of a careful engagement with arguments in history, political economy, and sociology/anthropology of science to make a simple but often overlooked point: the construction of much of contemporary world required the translation of different sources – raw materials, human labour, and knowledge – into energy. In addition to the reproductive politics in Murphy’s book, it was also a reminder of how much of everyday existence depends on humans just willing themselves (or being willed to?) do something.

Martha Nussbaum, Therapy of desire: the theory and practice of Hellenistic ethics

Nussbaum was one of the first philosophers I grew to like on the question of morals and ethics; this book was, in a manner of speaking, a stand-in – I wanted to buy Upheavals of Thought, which I had started reading in the (first) winter break of my (second) PhD, but couldn’t afford it in 2015, so went for this one instead. Revisiting it recently was both an uncanny experience – I was reading marginalia from my 7-years-ago-self – and a reminder of the origin of some of the key theoretical questions I grappled with and would go on to shape my subsequent intellectual project, including the role of theory in relation to practice.

Joanne Barker, Red Scare: the state’s indigenous terrorist

Thanks to Sakshi who I think first mentioned this book on Twitter. I’ve always had an interest in settler-colonial histories, including that of United States (this was, by the way, part of my undergraduate training in anthropology 2000-2004 at the University of Belgrade – you can imagine my surprise at the realization that histories of colonization are still considered ‘controversial’ and/or are not taught in many ‘Western’ universities); Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks was a formative influence on my book on politics of class and identity in former Yugoslavia, and Mamdani’s Neither Settler nor Native is one of the best books I’ve read (and keep reading) in the past three years. Barker’s book joins this lineup with a thorough take on the criminalization of indigenous resistance – something that has profound implications not only for how we think about projects of decolonizing, but also about ecological activism.

Maggie Nelson, Bluets

Speaking of reading via friends: I know and like Nelson’s work (I started reading On Freedom in 2021 despite forgetting to include it in the blog post!, and have started reading The Red Parts last year), and I’ve wanted to read Bluets in a while. The opportunity finally presented itself when I visited Marina Veličković’s flat in Newcastle, where I found it on the shelf (yes, sorry, I know I have said this already, but having me in your flat means I will read your books). Promptly purchased my own copy and read it after moving to a (rather blue) house on the North Sea coast.

I have read William Gass’ On Being Blue in 2014; blue, and versions of, are effectively the only colour palette I like (the rest of my choices, both in terms of wardrobe and in terms of environment, oscillate in the triangle of black, white, and [shades of] grey). But I love almost all shades of blue; and, of course, the sea. Though, of course, that could just be a trick of the light, st(r)uck in the same triangle between white, black, and grey.

Adam Phillips, On Getting Better and On Wanting to Change

Adam Phillips is my sort of guilty pleasure (and, of course, one of my favourite books by Phillips – in addition to On Flirtation – is Unforbidden Pleasures). In other words, Adam Phillips is what I read when I feel in need of a self-help book. Last year he published two, and although short (and meant to be read in tandem), I found them quite different – On Wanting to Change seemed like a not-too-deeply developed iteration/repetition of much of his earlier work; On Getting Better was much better (sorry), which came as a surprise as the theoretical focus of the first is generally closer to my sphere of interest than that of the second. Oh, we change.

Adam Phillips, On Flirtation

This is not only one of my favourite books by Phillips, it is also one of my favourite books in general. I was re-reading it after about five or six years – my copy is the specimen some good soul left in the ‘books to adopt’ section in the old Cambridge Sociology PhD attic – and marvelling at how little I remembered of the original reading.

Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored

What can I say, I needed a lot of self-help this year.

Lauren Berlant, On the Inconvenience of Other People

I eagerly anticipated Berlant’s last book (technically, finished and published after they had already passed) and so far it does not seem to disappoint. The last couple of years have been, for me, marked to a rather significant degree by reading (and teaching) Berlant’s work, and since this special issue on ‘Encountering Berlant’came out towards the end of the year, I am looking forward to continuing to engage it in the things I am writing at the moment.

Simone De Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity

During a particularly dark period last year, I started re-reading de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, which I’ve first read during my PhD (in which ambiguity features rather prominently). Back then, of course, I read it primarily as an argument in existentialist ontology; this time around, I paid more attention to the ethics aspect, which is exceptional – but, as I kept thinking, also relevant for contemporary discussions, somewhat archaic language aside. Given that I’ve spent years entreating people to read Ethics of Ambiguity (the usual response, of course, being “oh I haven’t read it” – most people who claim to have ‘read’ de Beauvoir have barely made it past the first 20 pages of Second Sex; this form of sidelinining/domaining is something I’ve explored here), I decided to bite the bullet and asked online if anyone would be interested in a reading group – so far it’s at its third iteration, so you are more than welcome to join!

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where are you?

I’ve written about Rooney’s third book (as well as a related novella, Mr Salary) in more detail here. Given I really liked Conversations with Friends (a book I picked up on a whim, based solely on its cover and the fact I was given some book tokens in exchange for keynoting at a conference, and was determined, deep in the throes of writing my PhD, to spend them on fiction rather than theory) before Rooney became A Name, and given I did not really like Normal People after it, I was apprehensive about this one. I really struggled with the first three quarters (or more like 5/6ths), but it picked up towards the end, making me think that there might have been something about my own pace of reading/processing at the time that it mimicked or repeated.

Margaret Atwood, Penelopiad

Atwood *and* Classics, furthermore Odyssey? Yes.

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

“The past shapes the present—they teach us that in schools and universities. (Shapes? Infiltrates, more like; imbues, infuses.) This past cannot be visited like an ageing aunt. It doesn’t live in little zoo enclosures. Half the time, this past is nothing less than the beating heart of the present. So, how to speak of the searing, unpindownable power that the past—ours, our family’s, our culture’s—wields in the present?”

‘Axiomatic’ was the first of two books I picked up in Durham’s newest independent bookshop (outstanding collection of books plus a reading nook, coffee/tea and cake). Obviously, I was drawn by the title, but it turned out I couldn’t have picked better – Tumarkin is an Eastern European living in Australia (in her memorable phrase, from ‘Eastern European elsewheres’), and reflecting on commonplaces of moving, learning, knowing, and forgetting (including trauma), in a mix of fiction, reportage, and analysis. Let’s just say I left the book with my therapist.  

Radmila Zygouris, Pasji život u bundi od samurovine i drugi psihoanalitički slučajevi (L’Ordinaire, symptome)

Speaking of both psychoanalysis and immigrant trajectories, I also read this book, translated into Serbian by one of my mum’s oldest friends. It is composed of articles and interviews with a prominent French Lacanian analyst – now in her 1980s – Radmila Zygouris, whose story (and career) combines Greece, Serbia, Argentina, Paris and Germany (!!). The book is sadly not available in English, but the closest edition is in French, here.  

Jelena Nolan Roll, O blokovima se priča (Storytelling from New Belgrade Blocks)

It’s great when one of your best friends publishes a book; it’s even better when it turns out that the book is really good, a half-magic-realist allegory of growing up in New Belgrade’s equivalent of council house flats in 1990s and early 2000s. The book is so far in Serbian only; there are book launches scheduled for Bristol (where Jelena resides) and London, so perhaps the English translation is not too far off…?

Hella Pick, Invisible Walls: A Journalist in Search of Her Life

This is the other book I picked up from Collected on a late-November strike-day attempt to recover from the combined pressures of Autumn darkness and term-time exhaustion. Pick was, for a significant part of the second half of the 20th century, The Guardian’s diplomatic correspondent. She was also on the Kindertransport from Austria. The story in between weaves together some of the most interesting parts of contemporary history (including early stages of decolonization, the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Cold War) and reminded me again – as I discovered in 2021, when reading Deborah Levy – that biographies are only boring if written by men.

It would have been great to close this year (and post) in oh-so-circular a fashion, with a biography (Pick), but sadly neither is Metaphysical Animals (only) a biography (it is, indeed, philosophy) nor are lives, blog posts, or books ever (fully) circular, so here’s instead a meta-reference to this – as well as to the book with which I closed 2020 and started 2021, A Tale for the Time Being:   

Ruth Ozeki, Book of Form and Emptiness

I have (really) started Ozeki’s newest earlier in 2022, and have (really) picked it up again only in the last days of 2022, and I (really) so far like it less than A Tale, but given that (I hope) it is – in addition to a book that is also about itself – a meta-reference to Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, here’s to…well, not forgetting.

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