The top five books that I, a PhD candidate in Humanities, read this year.

This year I read one book that was published this year. That book, Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, was taken as a tonic to soothe a Foulcault-addled brain. It’s about power and gender and sexuality and fighting our own inner-fascist to save what is most human in us…. Really, Scalzi? Must you pepper your slam-bang plots with ideas?

This year I read, I dunno, fifty books not published this year. If by “read” you mean: looked at, considered, sampled, crammed, or flipped through, probably over a hundred books. Out of this sampling of texts, here are the top books that I, a PhD candidate in Humanities, read this year:

  1. Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf (1982). Easily the most important (to me) book that I read this year. It is the book that I, now an ABD PhD candidate in interdisciplinary Humanities, should have read in my first semester. Western history is not a story of progress. The “third world” is not more or less traditional than anywhere else. The invisible hand was working long before Adam Smith was born (it was just invisible). This book is going to re-mix and re-jigger your perceptions faster than you can say “Marxist Anthropology”.
  2. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin (1968). I am partial to any series of essays that makes a special, mysterious, almost sacred, more-or-less metaphysical place for art. Heidegger will do that for you, if you’re into that kind of thing, but Benjamin is something you can actually read and enjoy without any taint of kind-sorta Fascist autochthony. Be an idea flaneur with the good guys: Benjamin and Baudelaire.

You, an intellectual: “You are a PhD candidate in Humanities and never read Benjamin before??”

Me, ABD PhD in Humanities: “We all have gaps. How much Scalzi have you read?”

  1. The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters by Stephen Addiss (2012). I, an interdisciplinary Humanities scholar, am sometimes in a position to, you know, actually do things related to being an interdisciplinary Humanities scholar. Like teach a class in Japanese Poetry and Philosophy and then go to Japan with some students. Skip the travel guides and read this book: the translations are unfussy and get the ineffable soul of the poetry (ala Benjamin), which lies in its bracing humanity. The history and the translations wrest this poetic tradition from the “5-7-5 + nature” form you learned in elementary school. It’s all war, sex, frogs, farts, and mosquitoes.
  2. Security, Territory, and Population by Michel Foucault (2004). Foucault had to give public lectures each year as part of his job as chair of “History of Systems of Thought” at the College de France. In them, he had to present original research, so no two years between 1970 – 1984 were the same. Pit that against me, a modern ABD intellectual, hoping to find that One Thing I can TED-talk into a career and beat senselessly until whatever money, prestige, and recognition I can get from it is drained from its’ lifeless body. Anyway, read this if you read “Panopticon” and the first chapter or so of Discipline and Punish (with the torture and what-not) and think: I want more. Just read bits here and there, not the whole thing at once. Flaneur the crap out of Foucault’s ideas. Soon you’ll see how governmentality is a use of power that distorts reality in order to control the masses and, well, that’s a nice thing to know as we enter post-America America in 2018. (See also: No news is “fake” in that all news is an exercise in power.)
  3. A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey (2005). I, working on a dissertation in economics and anthropology, need to be able to bandy about the term “neoliberal” with intellectual rigor. To that end, I read four books with “neoliberal” in the title and this is by far the most readable. Here are two thoughts:  1)  Individual freedom is achieved through market freedom. 2) Neoliberal “market freedom” wrests capital from governments and workers and concentrates it in a class of economic elites.Therefore, neoliberalism gives us the freedom to be poor. (This describes the latest       Republican tax cut (fight me!) so don’t confuse the term with ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. Also, Happy f-ing New Year American working class!) Neoliberalism was generally a project of American foreign policy and the IMF. It was something we did to the “third world”. Now we’re like, “Hey, you know a country that has a lot of capital to loot and a big government to suck dry?” The United States of America!

Note: Before you mention it, yes, it’s embarrassing that this list is five white men. Please take that up with the PhD program in Humanities where the curriculum includes (as I recall): Margaret Atwood, Donna Haraway, Carolyn Merchant… and, um, probably others? In my own research I lean heavily on Dorothy Shineberg (you’ve never heard of her unless you are into the sandalwood trade in the 19th century) and was big-time influenced by reading articles by anthropologist Micaela Di Leonardo.