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.

Sally’s boys, Daddy’s girls

I’ve finished reading Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are you? It turned out to be much better than I expected – as an early adopter of Conversations with Friends (‘read it – and loved it – before  it was cool’), but have subsequently found Normal People quite flat – by which I mean I spent most of the first half struggling, but found the very last bits actually quite good. In an intervening visit to The Bound, I also picked up one of Rooney’s short stories, Mr Salary, and read it on the metro back from Whitley Bay.

I became intrigued by the ‘good boy’ characters of both – Simon in Beautiful World, Nathan in Mr Salary. For context (and hopefully without too many spoilers), Simon is the childhood friend-cum-paramour of Eileen, who is the best friend of Alice (BW’s narrator, and Rooney’s likely alter-ego); Nathan, the titular character of Mr Salary, is clearly a character study for Simon, and in a similar – avuncular – relationship to the story’s narrator. Both Simon and Nathan are older than their (potential) girlfriends in sufficient amounts to make the relationship illegal or at least slightly predatory when they first meet, but also to hold it as a realistic and thus increasingly tantalizing promise once they have grown up a bit. But neither men are predatory creeps; in fact, exactly the opposite. They are kind, understanding, unfailingly supportive, and forever willing to come back to their volatile, indecisive, self-doubting, and often plainly unreliable women.

Who are these fantastic men? Here is an almost perfect reversal of the traditional romance portrayal of gender roles – instead of unreliable, egotistic, unsure-about-their-own-feelings-and-how-to-demonstrate-them guys, we are getting more-or-less the same, but with girls, with the men providing a reliable safe haven from which they can weather their emotional, professional, and sexual storms. This, of course, is not to deny that women can be as indecisive and as fickle as the stereotypical ‘Bad Boys’ of toxic romance; it’s to wonder what this kind of role reversal – even in fantasy, or the para-fantasy para-ethnography that is contemporary literature – does.

On the one hand, men like Simon and Nathan may seem like godsend to anyone who has ever gone through the cycle of emotional exhaustion connected to relationships with people who are, purely, assholes. (I’ve been exceptionally lucky in this regard, insofar as my encounters with the latter kind were blissfully few; but sufficient to be able to confirm that this kind does, indeed, exist in the wild). I mean, who would not want a man who is reliable, supportive of your professional ambitions, patient, organized, good in bed, and does laundry (yours included)? Someone who could withstand your emotional rollercoasters *and* buy you a ticket home when you needed it – and be there waiting for you? Almost like a personal assistant, just with the emotions involved.

And here, precisely, is the rub. For what these men provide is not a model of a partnership; it’s a model of a parent. The way they relate to the women characters – and, obviously, the narrative device of age difference amplifies this – is less that of a partner and  more of a benevolent older brother or, in a (n only slight) paraphrase of Winnicott, a good-enough father.

In Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel argues that feminism never engaged fully with the figure of the father – other than as the absent, distant or mildly (or not so mildly) violent and abusive figure. But somewhere outside the axis between Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto is the need to define exactly what the role of the father is once it is removed from its dual shell of object of hate/object of love. Is there, in fact, a role at all?

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only in relation to the intellectual (and political) problem of relationality in theory/knowledge production practices  – what Sara Ahmed so poignantly summarized as ‘can one not be in relation to white men?’ – but also personally. Having grown up effectively without a father (who was also unknown to me in my early childhood), what, exactly, was the Freudian triangle going to be in my case? (no this does not mean I believe the Electra complex applies literally; if you’re looking to mansplain psychoanalytic theory, I’d strongly urge you to reconsider, given I’ve read Freud at the age of 13 and have read post-Freudians since; I’d also urge you to read the following paragraph and consider how it relates to the legacies of Anna Freud/Melanie Klein divide, something Adam Philips writes about).

In the domain of theory, claims of originality (or originarity, as in coining or discovering something) is nearly always attributed to men, women’s contributions almost unfailingly framed in terms of ‘application or elaboration of *his* ideas’ or ‘[minor] contribution to the study’ (I’ve written about this in the cases of Sartre/de Beauvoir and Robert Merton/Harriet Zuckerman’s the ‘Matthew Effect’, but other examples abound). As Marilyn Frye points out in “Politics of reality”, the force of genealogy does not necessarily diminish even for those whose criticism of patriarchy extends to refusing anything to do with men altogether; Frye remarks having observed many a lesbian separatist still asking to be recognized – intellectually and academically – by the white men ‘forefathers’ who sit on academic panels. The shadow of the father is a long one. For those of us who have chosen to be romantically involved with men, and have chosen to work in patriarchal mysoginistic institutions that the universities surely are, not relating to men at all is not exactly an option.

It is from this perspective that I think we’d benefit from a discussion on how men can be reliable partners without turning into good-enough daddies, because – as welcome and as necessary as this role sometimes is, especially for women whose own fathers were not – it is ultimately not a relationship between two adults. I remember reading an early feminist critique of the Bridget Jones industry that really hit the nail on the head: it was not so much Jones’ dedication to all things ‘60s and ‘70s feminism abhorred – obsession with weight loss and pursuit of ill-advised men (i.e. Daniel Cleaver); it was even more that when ‘Mr Right’ (Mark Darcy, the barely disguised equivalent of Austen’s Mr Darcy) arrives, he still falls for Bridget – despite the utter absence of anything from elementary competence at her job to the capacity to feed herself in any form that departs from binge eating to recommend her to a seemingly top-notch human rights attorney. Which really begs the question: what is Mr Darcy seeing in Bridget?

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that there are men who are attracted to the chaotic, manic-pixie-who-keeps-losing-her-credit-card kind of girl. Regardless of what manifestation or point on the irresponsibility spectrum they occupy, these women certainly play a role for such men – allowing them to feel useful, powerful, respected, even perhaps feeding a bit their saviour complex. But ultimately, playing this role leaves these men entirely outside of the relationship; if the only way they relate to their partners is by reacting (to their moods, their needs, their lives), this ultimately absolves them of equal responsibility for the relationship. Sadly, there is a way to avoid equal division of the ‘mental load’ even while doing the dishes.

And I am sure this does something for the women in question too; after all, there is nothing wrong in knowing that there *is* going to be someone to pick you up if you go out and there are no taxis to get you back home, who will always provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, seemingly completely irrespectively of their own needs (Simon is supposed to have a relatively high-profile political job, yet, interestingly, never feels tired when Ellaine calls or offers to come over). But what at first seems like a fantasy come true – a reliable man who is not afraid to show his love and admiration – can quickly turn into a somewhat toxic set of interdependencies: why, for instance, learn to drive if someone is always there to pick you up and drop you off? (honestly: even among the supposedly-super-egalitarian straight partnerships I know, the number of men drivers vastly outstrips that of women). The point is not to always insist on being a jack-of-all-trades (nor on being the designated driver), as much as to realize that most kinds of freedom (for instance, the freedom to drink when out) embed a whole set of dependencies (for instance, dependence on urban networks of taxis/Ubers or kind self-effacing mensaviours there to pick you up – in Cars’ slightly creepy formulation, drive you home).

Of course, as Simone de Beauvoir recognized, there is no freedom without dependency. We cannot, simply, will ourselves free without willing the same for others; but, at the same time, we cannot will them to be free, as this turns them into objects. In Ethics of Ambiguity – one of the finest books of existentialist philosophy – de Beauvoir turns this into the main conundrum (thus: source of ambiguity) for how to act ethically. Acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others does not mean we need to remain locked into the same set of interdependencies (e.g., we could build safe and reliable public transport and then we would not have to rely on people to drive us home?), but it also does not mean we need to kick out of them by denying or reversing their force – not least because it, ultimately, does not work.

The idea that gender equality, especially in heterosexual partnerships, benefits from the reversal of the trope of the uncommitted, eternally unreliable bachelor in the way that tips the balance in an entirely opposite direction (other than for very short periods of time, of course) strikes me as one of the manifestations of the long tail of post- or anti-feminist backlash – admittedly, a mild and certainly less harmful one than, for instance, the idea that feminism means ‘women are better than men’ or that feminists seek to eliminate men from politics, work, or anything else (both, worryingly, have filtered into public discourse). It also strikes me that the long-suffering Sacrificial Men who have politely taken shit from their objects of affection can all-too-easily be converted into Men’s Rights Activists or incels if and when their long suffering fails to yield results – for instance, when their Manic Pixie leaves with someone with a spine (not a Bad Boy, just a man with boundaries) – or when they realize that the person they have been playing Good Daddy to has finally grown up and left home.

A Year of Reading Only (Well, Mostly) Women

Whenever someone asks me for my favourite (or top 5, or 10) books of the year, I become aware of the fact that in the last year (and some), I’ve read books only or mainly written by women.

This wasn’t entirely planned. Of course, I was aware of Sara Ahmed’s approach to citational justice in Living a Feminist Life, which entailed citing only women (and recall with amusement the shocked reaction of some of my colleagues to hearing this at Ahmed’s lecture in Cambridge, as if not citing white men constituted the ultimate betrayal of academic mores). But over the past year-and-some, I became increasingly aware of how much erasure of women’s work there is in the UK – in particular in theory. Some of this came through my work on epistemic positioning; but, like the concepts developed in the article, most of it came from participation in academic and other intellectual environments. I encountered social theory syllabi where barely any women were present (and if they were, they were all grouped in the incongruous pile called ‘feminist theory’ or ‘gender’, just like Black and minority ethnic scholars were to be found under ‘studies of race and racism’ and nowhere else); I saw special issues of academic journals on rather general topics that would feature articles only by men.  

As someone who read lots and indiscriminately, the absence of women – even those run-of-the-mill, obligatory ‘passage points’ like Arendt and de Beauvoir – truly stunned me. My own work gave me a good sense of how and why this was happening; but it left me none the wiser in terms of how to change it beyond the remit of my teaching. When it came either to reading/referencing recommendations or course design, I found myself mentioning or encouraging people to read women authors rather than just the ‘usual suspects’ White men. More often than not, it would turn out that people were in fact aware of the book/author, or at least had heard of them, but had forgotten about them, or just never considered them.

This brought to mind the relevance of attention, and time, in the fight for epistemic justice. Of course academics are overworked; as clearly expressed in the strike at the beginning of December, there has been a constant workload creep in the UK academia. It isn’t only about Zoom and incessant meetings in the first pandemic year, or juggling both online and offline content and growing student numbers in the second. Everyone is struggling. In this context, it is only too imaginable that people reach for the ‘usual suspects’, for the references they already know and have been using for years, rather than look for new (or old!) ones.

It also encourages lazy and reductive reading: of course you’re not going to bother with this book if it’s only about a ‘feminist’ reading rather than, say, about class and labour, or with this as it’s about ‘women’s history’ rather than philosophy. The only innovative thing about such tropes is the ingenuity with which they apply the assumption that ‘(White) boys write about everything, women write about women’s issues’, to a seemingly endless set of authors and topics. 

In this context, my New Year’s present is a list of things written only by women. Some of these have been published in the course of the last year; some of these I have been re-reading for different reasons, often connected with work. Every single time, however, I was struck by the relevance of ideas, the clarity of prose, and, not least – the patent absence of self-indulgence and clunkiness of phrase that so often characterises theoretical writing by men. Not all of these books were ‘theory’, either; there is a good degree of fiction, essays, as well as auto/biography.

Of course I also read some men – most notably when I had to for work, but also when I found pieces really interesting, although in this case as well I privileged men who were not white (two favourites: here and here), or who set good examples on how to cite women (and survive!). Goes without saying I also read non-binary scholars (two favourites: here and here).

So here’s my New Year’s list, with random annotated comments at times, and, roughly, in the order I have read them.

Simone de Beauvoir, Collected Works (2020)

This was a present for my 40th birthday. Given that my birthday took place under a lockdown, five months after I had lost my mother, and pending Year 2 of a global pandemic, this is one of the few things that made it worth it. There are many excellent, previously untranslated, essays here, with analytical prefaces by a range of contemporary readers, which are often almost as good; I read Pyrrhus and Cinéas for the first time (I read French, but have over time become lazy at reading philosophy in languages other than English, something I regret). It is one of the most powerful philosophical reflections on the nature of agency, and it helped me direct my thinking about the meaning of legacy, temporality, and change. Shorter pieces on abortion, Marxism, and colonialism, among others, are well worth a read, for the understanding of the evolution of de Beauvoir’s politics and the range – and influence – her thought exercised in the day (only to be, like many other women intellectuals, erased retrospectively). This edition is the first to fully recognize this legacy.

If you are new to de Beauvoir’s writing, you can start anywhere; if you have access to institutional libraries, encourage your university or institutional library to buy the collected works, and then you can read or assign specific essays. (Un)surprisingly, many students had actually never read de Beauvoir previously – despite being fed ‘post-feminist’ ideas about how feminism was passé.  Wonder why.

Kate Inglis, Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief

This book reached me in an envelope sent in the post, together with some (vegan) chocolate, some loose leaf Darjeeling tea, and a note saying ‘Here if you want to talk. Or if you do not. Or just generally here’, reminding me why feminist (and women’s) friendships are, and I use neither lightly, a blessing and a privilege.

Inglis’ book is exactly what the subtitle says. She wrote it after one of the twins she gave birth to never made it out of the intensive neonatal care unit. In some ways, of course, the experience that prompted the book could not be farther removed from mine: Inglis had lost a child; I had lost a parent. But it’s an excellent guide to mourning (don’t worry – no prescriptive ‘five stages’ bullshit here). It also contains one of the most insightful observations I have ever heard: the first moments after losing someone are uncharacteristic because you get to peek behind the thin boundary of life and death; if I recall correctly, she compares it to a heroin high, where you almost feel omnipotent just for being alive. It’s the comedown that’s difficult. I probably owe a lot of preserved sanity to this observation.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

In addition to dispensing wise books, tea, and chocolate at exactly the right moments, one of my best friends also shares my love of sci-fi, and the corresponding frustration about the lack of good new stuff. I was dispatched from New Year’s visit to her and her partner with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is excellent; I look forward to reading the sequels (Mercy, Sword, and Provenance).  

Chloe Cooper, The Arsonist

Know how I said it’s a privilege to have friends who buy you good books? I was lucky enough to get two of each at the end of last year – Sakshi Aravind and Solange Manche gave me Cooper’s The Arsonist and James Bradley’s Clade. I got started on Cooper, which is set in Australia; my partner borrowed Clade, which I was glad about not only for helping me maintain gender consistency but also because it’s a book about climate change. I look forward to picking up both in the new year!

Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty

This might seem like it’s repeating the point made earlier, but I in fact bought and started reading Rose’s Mothers a few years back. I only picked up on it, however, after my own mother had died; I read it on and off throughout the year, and having finally completed it, must say it’s excellent. It also made me consider trying to read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels again, which I started but did not feel compelled by in the slightest. I am an unrepentant longitudinal *and* parallel reader – I often pick up on books years after starting them, much to the chagrin of some of my friends – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t books that I can’t put down.

Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? and The Psychic Life of Power

I’m not even sure why I started re-reading Frames of War, but I found it – especially ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’ – incredibly relevant for the present moment. It’s also now part of the mandatory reading on my theory modules.

Speaking of which: The Psychic Life of Power is Butler’s best book. It’s a shame many social theory syllabi rarely feature Butler’s writing beyond Gender Trouble or Bodies That Matter (if at all); Butler is by far one of the most insightful theorists of power, which enforces my point that she should be read as a political philosopher.  

Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: beyond recognition

It was actually Oliver’s book that inspired me to read The Psychic Life of Power – it is a remarkably comprehensive yet analytical take on the logic of I-Thou, applying it to a range of examples from debates on politics of identity to transitional justice. Outstanding political theory writing. It’s a shame it’s not better known – oh, wait, I have an idea of why that might be the case.

Nancy Folbre, The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems: an Intersectional Political Economy

As Folbre noted in a recent book talk, a probably better title would have been ‘The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again’, given the resurgence of anti-feminist and misogynist politics, policies, and sentiments we are witnessing. Rest assured, however – the book is no friend to the ‘equality achieved, what are women complaining about’ brand of ‘theory’ (for a useful takedown of such theories, see here).  

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting

Wade’s book is part history, part biography, insofar as it details the lives of exceptional women – H.D., Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eileen Power, and Jane Harrison – who all lived in the same area of Bloomsbury around Mecklenburgh Square, but it is both so rich in narrative detail and strong on feminist politics of the day that I used it as bedtime reading. It is also one of my favourite parts of London, which helped soothe the London withdrawal syndrome caused by both lockdown and moving farther away.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick

Another present, this one from my dear friend and collaborator Linsey McGoey – I love McMillan Cottom’s writing and this is a good analysis of how raced (and gendered) assumptions shape dominant institutions’ perceptions of talent and intelligence, told from a biographical perspective. Now that the book made it out of storage, I look forward to continuing it!

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life and Complaint!

I am a regular reader of Ahmed but this was a fantastic double-bill. The first I re-read because I needed it (meaning, I was using it for an article I was working on); the second I eagerly anticipated. As it turns out, they also provided the framing for thinking about mediating my own personal experience of bullying and gender-based discrimination at work; in this sense, I certainly needed the first, and I am adamant about using the second as a guide for all scholars who are experiencing, or have experienced, these forms of abuse. I have also, with a few others, been discussing/planning a reading group on Complaint! at Durham.

Jacqueline Rose, On Violence and on Violence Against Women

In a year so defined by sexism, misogyny and patriarchy, my second most eagerly anticipated book after Complaint! was Jacqueline Rose’s On Violence and on Violence Against Women. Not sure what specialists would have to say about it, but I was impressed by Rose’s capacity to say something new about a subject that has been extensively written about – and to connect it to the deepest questions of social theory. A difficult book – not for the style, which is excellent and crisp, but for the topic – which I’ve occasionally had to put down, but look forward to completing in the new year.

Adriana Zaharijevic, Life of Bodies: Political Philosophy of Judith Butler

Full disclosure: this book has not yet been published in English, but it is in the process of being translated by Edinburgh University Press. Written by my dear friend and feminist co-conspirator Adriana Zaharijević, it is an excellent analysis of the connections between Butler’s treatment of gender, precarity, and agency, by one of the best Butler scholars today. Incidentally, it also concurs with my reading that Butler is above all a political philosopher.

Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent

Angel’s book is excellent in managing to work through an issue that’s been extensively discussed while calling bullshit on both faux libertarianism and moralism in (almost) equal amounts. I was super-glad Angel was able to give the first lecture in the new Josephine Butler lecture series – if you missed it, your loss.

Deborah Levy, Things I Do Not Want to Know, The Cost of Living, Real Estate

I thought I hated (auto)biography. Turns out, I only hate autobiography because it is almost always focused on the lives of men. Levy’s ‘Living Autobiography’ series is a fantastic, funny, and at times shattering reminder that needn’t be that way; it is also a take on London through the eyes of a foreigner, something I can deeply relate to.

Levy’s books came to my reading list as I was beginning to contemplate the value of my own life (cost?) as well as ‘real estate’, both in terms of what my mother was leaving me, and what I was thinking about acquiring, or building, on my own. For someone whose preferred approach to dealing with the (im)permanence of material property was to acquire as little of it as practicable and dispense with it (or pass it on) as quickly as possible, this introduced a whole new element of ‘reality’ or, at least, materiality (no, I’m not saying they’re the same thing; no, this isn’t a social ontology post) to ‘estate’.

Annie Ernaux, The Years

Speaking of autobiography: I only arrived at Ernaux’s ‘The Years’ (Les Années) this year, which speaks to the degree to which I’ve given in to UK’s intellectual parochialism. The deep sense of shame did not prevent me from enjoying the narrative crossover between biography and sociology that she uses to depict the post-war years in France; I also found it interesting to reflect on how many of the references she uses made sense to me (French was my first foreign language, and I’ve spent some time part-living in Paris, but have allowed both linguistic and cultural competence to deteriorate since).   

Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: from State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis

Think you know what Fraser’s argument was about? Think again. I picked up Fortunes of Feminism as a holiday read (well, I was at a friend’s house in Wales for a holiday, the book was on his desk – yes, sorry, this is what happens if you host me in your house, I am going to read your books), and while I thought I had read most if not all of the essays included in the volume, I discovered several angles I had never noticed before, and was struck again by the clarity of writing and the ability to anticipate challenges – many of which are very much with us today.

Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice

Speaking of feminist icons: I know, I know, you’ve ‘read’ Iris Marion Young already. So have I. I just never read her last – and unfinished – book, which is a fantastic re-engagement with some of the issues raised in Justice and the Politics of Difference. And one much more relevant for the present moment, given that it addresses the thorny question of not just what is wrong but who has the moral (ethical, political) responsibility to fix it – something that speaks directly to issues ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic to climate change and, obviously, the role of social sciences in addressing them. Give it a go and see for yourself.

Serene Khader, Decolonizing Universalism: a Transnational Feminist Ethic

Speaking of which: worried all this ‘white feminism’ is ruining your progressive credentials? Before you buy into the argument that the best way to wiggle out of your shame for reading and citing almost exclusively white men is to hate on white women, read Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism – among other things, to try and understand what exactly decolonizing social and political theory might entail.

Laura Bates, Men Who Hate Women

I know, I know, the value of reading something you already know about is doubtful, and thus I avoided reading Bates’ work for a long time (not least because I was mildly resentful that the most recent book appropriated the title of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy). Turns out, it makes sense to remind oneself how widespread women-hating is, from incels proper to your garden-variety whatabouter (it will also make it easier for you to spot them, especially when they show up in classrooms, on boards, and, of course, your Twitter mentions).

Manon Garcia, We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives

One of the most pressing questions emerging from the contemporary readings of de Beauvoir is why some people will choose to submit, or to relinquish their freedom. Garcia’s book engages with this question, while also presenting a very accessible introduction to de Beauvoir’s thought. I’ve included it both in the mandatory reading and have recommended it to friends and family (and possibly also bought a few of them a copy ).

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation

In my neverending quest to diversify syllabi in theory (AKA: Only Men), I’ve introduced Federici to reading lists on both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Turns out students love it, which isn’t surprising, given that it is remarkably accessibly written, manages to weave a set of historical data into a remarkable and persuasive analysis of the constitution of gender inequality in the modern West that doesn’t, imagine that, avoid the question of colonisation and slavery, and does all of that in fewer words than Foucault. I’ve read the Autonomedia edition back in my anarchist days, but there’s a new Penguin edition that puts the book where it properly belongs – Modern Classics. Simply can’t understand how anyone can learn anything about the history of capitalism, class, or inequality without reading Federici (and Ellen Meiksins Wood, too).

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

Berlant died this (!) year, so, as is customary, many people only noticed her work after that (same goes for bell hooks, who passed away shortly before the end of 2021). I started re-reading Cruel Optimism for an article I am working on; I also introduced affect theory to undergraduate theory teaching, though it sadly occupies only one third of a single session, because, you know, MEN). While my first reading of Cruel Optimism was somewhat reductive – I was interested in the ‘relational ills’ element, which is what I presume what attracts most people who work in moral and political theory – on this reading, I became fascinated by arguments I had simply never noticed before, convincing me Berlant’s work was both more far-sighted than it is normally given credit for, and probably one of the most suitable for comprehending the present moment.

Hannah Arendt, On Violence and Life of the Mind: Thinking

Much like de Beauvoir, I believe One Should Regularly Re-Read Arendt, whether for writing or for General Edification Purposes. Enough said.

Amia Srinivasan, Right to Sex

I bucked and followed the trend of reading the Most Eagerly Anticipated Philosophy Book of 2021, at least according to white men who are trying to vindicate the absence of diversity of their reading lists. As it happens, I’ve read some of Srinivasan’s stuff before, and as it happens, I like it, so I am mostly enjoying the book so far, not least for the precision and clarity of prose – something, again, that is both the mark of Oxford’s school of philosophy but also of women philosophers’ writing more generally.  

Tabitha Lasley, Sea State

This one was excellent! I bought the book soon after it was published, but only got to reading it in November this year. Worth every page; I considered inviting Lasley to speak at the Qualitative Methods module I taught last year, so hope I will still get to do it – her work, not unlike Joan Didion’s, Alice Goffman’s, or Simone Weil’s, points to the ongoing challenges in engaging with ‘the field’ and as a woman.

Amelia Horgan, Lost in Work

I was the discussant for Amelia’s book in the Philosopher seminar series. In this sense, reading it was…’work’ (ha), but it also came at the right moment, because I was at the beginning of a very exhausting academic term. If you’re looking for a good primer on the history of work, labour struggles, and relations, especially in Western industrial capitalism, this is your book!

Katie Goh, The End: Surviving the World Through Imagined Disasters

The only thing I regret about this book is not having written it myself. That being said, I am (still) working on the sociological equivalent of it (early drafts here and here).

I picked up both this and the next book in The Bound bookshop in Whitley Bay, during one of my frantic searches for a flat in the area. I didn’t find a flat, but I found this bookshop, which is worth coming back for – fantastic selection, lovely staff, and a reminder (as clichéd as this may sound) of the value of independent bookshops.

Jacqueline Harpmann, I Who Have Never Known Men

Part-Handmaid’s Tale, part-Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but in some ways better (and earlier!) than both. A gem of a read.

Ruth Ozeki, Tale for a Time Being

This was also a present, this time for Christmas. Don’t know if it just the exhaustion of the preceding year, or my general interest in transcultural, translocal, and the combo of climate change, feminist anarchism, and Zen Buddhism, but this book feels like a balm on a weary soul. Thank you ❤

I am ending the year with two books I’ve taken with me – one is Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice; the other is Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings.

Campbell’s book attracted my attention as soon as it was published; I was even at the book launch/reading (held, fittingly, in Cambridge’s Polar Museum) before the pandemic. It is an impressive artistic/philosophical/literary reflection on change…and ice. Now that I finally got my (non-work) books out of storage, I can read it at peace. For someone who dislikes the cold (the northernmost I lived was Copenhagen, and I hated it), I have a long-standing obsession with the extreme North (possibly fostered by reading Jack London and wanting to own a husky dog as a child). My favourite photograph is Per Bak Jensen’s Disko Bay: I like it so much that I have two reproductions – albeit both small – hanging on my walls.

I was reminded of Ngai’s book by Milan Stürmer in a recent Twitter exchange in which I asked people what their dream interdisciplinary reading list/group would be. Ngai was one of the few authors mentioned that I haven’t read before. It’s definitely time to rectify that.

More importantly, however, reading the suggestions, I was once again reminded of the value of reading broadly, anti-disciplinarily, and against the tendency to reproduce structured inequalities in knowledge production, even if it is sometimes easier. So, for new year, my wish for everyone is not only to read more women, but also to read outside of the immediate or proximate zone of disciplinary, linguistic, conceptual, or even political comfort. This is not saying I always succeed – while I take pride in regularly stepping outside of #1 and #3, as this list demonstrates, I have grown lazy in terms of #2 and the events of the previous year have made me reluctant to engage with #4 beyond what I anyway had to by the virtue of living in a racist, misogynistic world.  

Books are many things – but one of them is lifeworlds. The words we surround ourselves with provide building blocks for the worlds we will inhabit. Make yours, you know, a bit less…predictable.