The following is a brief overview of some of the books I have read this year, and what I got from them explained simply. Some of them I have read in their entirety, and for others I engaged substantially with certain chapters only. I am providing this overview as I have benefited from other people’s reviews and reading lists a lot, so I thought I’d offer my account here.
Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar
This is Bruno Latour’s seminal study of how scientists create facts in laboratories for us folk outside of them. This is my second reading of the book, and my aim was to better understand Latour’s method of fieldwork. To me this is about going slowly, plodding through the tiny steps of how the lab’s actors (people and things) translate and create knowledge and, at every one of its junctures, to theorise about how it is and how it could have been otherwise.
Key learning: in fieldwork plod slowly and follow the effects of every thing, look at how things become and mull over how it could have been otherwise.
Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961), by Erving Goffman
This text is not just about humanising those who may be dehumanised (i.e. the mentally ill), but it is about understanding that every institution has a life beneath its surface. So the two sections I read deeply are ‘Characteristics of Total Institutions’ and ‘The Underlife’. Goffman’s field notes are lucidly written and arm him with a multitude of examples of how the routine and taken-for-granted interactions of asylums – and all ‘total institutions’ – position their occupants a certain way, and that paying attention to these is vital to our understandings of institutions and their people.
Key learning: every institution has an underlife; figure out the practices of that underlife; that everything should be taken note of and that I should journal on a day-to-day basis on lots of issues.
Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004), by Sue Townsend
I have always loved Adrian Mole, and the whole series since I was a kid. This book is about the dysfunctional Adrian Mole at 35 years old.
Key learning: antiheroes are much more relatable; poignancy with humour is better than humour on its own.
On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2013), by Alexander Horowitz
Horowitz gives an account of 12 walks (including one alone) around the same city block with different people alongside her providing a commentary on the surroundings, e.g. a blind person, a dog, a type designer. Her basic argument is that we are trained to ignore, and that simple procedures to deal with that are illuminating, if we just take the time to see.
Key learning: make the familiar strange; help make the familiar strange by getting other people to see and explain stuff; there is loads to see and learn in a walk down the street; pay attention to rocks, concrete.
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989), by David Fromkin
I started reading this again since the Syria crisis entered the public conversation. It’s a highly informed take on the origins of the wars in the Middle East, and their connections with British empire and its decline.
Key learning: how empires rise is one thing but more important is how they decline; studying how they decline is key to understanding the mess which follows; bad stuff is triggered by bad stuff so at least try to disentangle it; openly appreciate nuances when policy is based on a reductive narrative (e.g. ‘good vs bad’).
The Book of Wisdoms (Kitab al Hikam): a collection of Sufi aphorisms, by Ibn Ata’illah (tran. Victor Danner)
I read this many years ago and picked it up again at the re-publication of a famous translation of the Sufi classic. I like that the Arabic is with its vowellation so that I can read it and attempt translations in my head, but then see Danner’s version underneath. I have a deep connection with some of the aphorisms here and I was overjoyed to get this as a gift.
Key learning: Every action can be a spiritual action; maintain knowledge of a classical language (any one will do).