Archives for posts with tag: reading

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I spoke recently with the Times Higher Education Magazine about reading. It is commonplace now to observe that our digital age entails attentional effects that play out in all aspects of lives, including the university classroom. The philosopher and bike mechanic, Matthew Crawford, is particularly astute on the subject of attention deficit, though in The World Beyond Your Head he locates its source not in the iphone, but rather in the idea articulated by Immanuel Kant that experience must not guide reason. Crawford recommends a re-engagement with material reality and with skills (this is where the bike-repair comes in) that bring us into contact with the physical world, requiring persistence, entailing difficulty and resulting in the production of an object that contains the results of our labour. He sees these as a way to reclaim the “attentional commons”.

I suppose long form reading is a bit like that. It requires time to be poured into it. There is a kind of physicality to it, as the bookmark moves slowly through the thumbed pages, and the experience is just as important as the content.  In the world of 500-800 word blog posts, an idea or set of arguments elaborated in a book of 500 pages can feel heavy, complicated and difficult. Yet as anyone who has worked at the coal face of knowledge knows, scholarship is difficult and frustrating and laboured and slow. But it is in this difficulty that the rewards not just of scholarship, but also of life, so often lie. One of the things universities do is facilitate (in the face of student reluctance) forms of engagement with ideas and arguments that are deeper and slower than those usually available online.

The THE wanted to know what books university lecturers thought secondary school students should read before coming to university. The recommendations were diverse, but my suggestion was Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963 (edited by David Rieff, 2008). They show Sontag uncertain, sometimes scared and yet intoxicated by ideas and the possibilities of life and sexuality. I love them for the permission they give to take risks, chase passion and, most of all, not to know. All students starting out at university should remember that not having answers is at the heart of scholarship and learning – as long as you keep asking questions.

This has reminded me it is high time for another:

Occasional dispatch from my big green reading chair #2

  • Richard Dennis, Econobabble: How to decode political spin and economic nonsense (Redback Quarterly 8, 2015). This is fantastic no-nonsense piece on the work of economics talk, how it is used to forestall and obfuscate, and how you can blow it apart. It should be required reading for everyone remotely interested in political debate. This is such a brilliant series from Black Inc – longer than a Quarterly Essay but not too long that you can’t finish it in a couple of days. I’m now onto Jessica Rayner’s Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young.
  • Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (Penguin, 2016). This book has a subtitle worthy of the 16th century and indicative of its slightly breathless (!) style: ‘How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Star the Protestant Reformation’. There will be books aplenty coming out in 2017 for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but Pettegree’s focus is Luther’s adept use of the new-tech of the day: printing as a mass medium. This attention to the intersections between technology and ideas has, of course, many resonances with the present, but thankfully these are not drawn too explicitly by Pettegree, who instead allows the reader to think about disruption and change, politics and power through the lens of a period at once familiar and very different to our own.
  • Rahul Rao, On StatuesThe Disorder of Things blog (April 2 2016). Beginning at the University of Cape Town with a (successful) campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes that dominated the entrance to the university, Rhodes Must Fall has grown into much broader movement which seeks, as its Oxford website outlines, ‘to decolonise the institutional structures  and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ including the ‘structures of knowledge production that continue to mould a colonial mindset that dominates our present’. In this thoughtful piece Rahul Rao (Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS) writes about statues, who needs them, and the politics of their removal, not just in Oxford and Cape Town, but also in Iraq and India.

FullSizeRenderOne of the best bits about being an historian is that “reading” features prominently in the job description. From archival letters to articles and scholarly monographs (and ok, yes, just as often twitter and random bits of the internet) words crafted by others are at the heart of my daily practice. They take me out across oceans and pull me into the intimacies of others’ longings and fears. And in doing so they bring the past and the future into my present, both slowing me down and dragging me along.

But I find that often this longer-form reading gets lost in the textual flood that is the internet and email and the administrivia of daily life. I want to keep better track of my textual meanderings and I want to be more conscious of their value in my week.

I know, I know, book lists are annoying. I can’t stand the endless “best of” inventories generated by book sellers and reviewers. The words “inspiring”, “gritty” or “hilarious” invariably appear in every single precis. They seem wholly too worthy, and usually make me itchy and impatient. Yet I love love LOVE the LRB, which is basically a big list about books written by people who live in North London. I love the conversation into which it draws me, and the unexpected connections it helps me to make.

So, in the spirit of the latter rather than the former, I hereby offer you:

Occasional dispatches from my big green reading chair #1

  • Zoe Williams, Get It Together(Hutchinson, 2015) – Zoe Williams is freaking great. A journalist for the Guardian UK, her writing combines deep awareness of people in the realities of their daily lives with incisive analysis of the structures and interests at work in our political and economic systems. This book is talking about wtf is going on in Britain now and the massive transfer of wealth that has happened since 2008 and what can be done. It has wide resonance beyond Britain because so many of these issues are present in post-industrial societies – they include the changing nature of work, housing (un)affordability, service outsourcing and much besides. The tone is one of controlled rage mixed with wry humour.
  • Tomás Irish, The University at War, 1914-25: Britain, France and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) – I am writing a review on this, but I had bought it before the journal contacted me, which has got to be a good sign. It both exemplifies and contributes to a new breed of university history that is coming out of the cloister and stepping beyond its traditional institutional and national frames. I’ve got a particular interest in this book because, as well as focusing on the mobilisation of universities during the First World War, it takes up questions of expertise and the nation in the aftermath of the conflict. These latter themes are at the heart of the major ARC-funded project that I’m running, together with colleagues from the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne. To get a sense of it, imagine a national version of USyd’s Beyond1914 database which collects information on graduates who served in the war. What did these soldier experts do after the conflict ended? Why is their story not more central in our accounts of nation building?
  • Alecia Simmonds, ‘Why we need a reminder about Australia’s imperialist history with Nauru’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Feb 2016 – This is an important piece because in all the talk about refugees the history of Australia’s relationship with Nauru is too often ignored. Why has Nauru agreed to set up a detention facility? It’s because decades of Australian-led phosphate mining have stripped it of its natural assets such that 90% of the island is depleted and its people live in the narrow strip around its coast, vulnerable to rising sea levels. The failed tax-haven plan of the 1990s only left it doubly bankrupt. As Naomi Klein has so powerfully shown, on Nauru ‘the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow … play warden to the economic and war refugees of today.’ In this piece Alecia Simmonds reminds us that the border between Australia and Nauru has long been little more than a convenient fiction.
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