From Bob's Archive: Academic Bestsellers

I am away, so scheduling re-posts from my archive. No special reason for posting this, from June 2005, apart from it relates to a comment I left on Martin's blog not long ago. Feel free to treat this as an open meme, and make your own suggestions. I'd be interested, for example, in suggestions from TNC, this Martin, that Martin, Peter, Noga, Mike, the Brigada and Schalom Lib.

A week or two ago, Henry at Crooked Timber wrote:

"David Greenberg had two interesting articles last week about the gap between academic and popular history, and how to bridge it. This suggests an interesting question. Which academic books are fit for human consumption? Or, to put it less polemically, which books written for academic purposes deserve, should find (or in some cases have found) a more general readership among intelligent people who are either (a) non-academics, or (b) aren't academic specialists in the discipline that the book is written for. Nominations invited. To start the ball rolling, I'm listing three (fairly obvious imo) contenders myself.

E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class. A classic, which reads more like a novel than a piece of academic history, rescuing organizers, sectaries, pamphleteers and gutter journalists - from the enormous condescension of posterity. Moving, smart, and wonderfully written.

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. A stunningly simple idea, worked out to its logical conclusions - it creates a new vocabulary for understanding how social institutions work.

James Scott, Seeing Like A State. Libertarians will like the critique of state-led social engineering, but be discomfited by Scott's account of the totalizing effects of markets. Traditional social democrats and socialists will have the opposite set of reactions. Both should read it (as should anyone else interested in the intersection between political theory and real life)."

Here's my suggestions:

1. E.P. Thompson Making of the English Working Class. This is indeed a wonderful book, a deeply human and humanist version of Marxism, which places the agency of ordinary folk (rather than oppressive structures) at the centre of the story. Thompson joined the Communist Party as a teenager during WWII, before going off to serve in the fight against fascism in Italy. This was the age of the Popular Front, when Stalin's Russia seemed like a great bulwark against Hitler. Anti-fascism remained a core element of Thompson's worldview, and he continued to be inspired by his older brother, who died fighting alongside partisans in Bulgaria. After demob, he worked in adult education in Yorkshire, so his first audience as an academic was not priveliged undergrads, but working class men.

In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Thompson (and his wife Dorothy, also a great historian) finally broke with Stalinism. The Making of the English Working Class was written in 1963 in the shadow of Stalinism, and the vision of human freedom it celebrates must be read as a critique of the Communist betrayal of Marxism.

Thompson was to be associated with the new left, but was always critical of the overly theorised versions of academic Marxism popular in the new left - his devastating critique of such positions being set out in his The Poverty of Theory.

In his later life, Thompson continued to attack Soviet stalinism and was a key link in the samizdat chain that allowed Eastern dissidents to get heard in the West, helping to sustain resistance to those regimes in the way that the messianic artisans he described in The Making helped sustain resistance in the dark times after the defeat of revolutionary France.

2. CLR James The Black Jacobins. This makes a nice companion to Thompson. As Peter Linebaugh has written, while Thompson was writing in the shadow of the Soviet tanks in Budapest, James was writing against the Communist murder of non-CP anti-Franco partisans in Spain. The Black Jacobins tells the story of the Haitian revolution, showing how slave struggles in the colonies helped drive the great revolutionary moment of 1776-1792, unveiling a different dimension to the emergence of the great values of liberty, democracy and rights which triumphed in the French and American revolutions.

James might not exactly qualify for this list, because he wasn't really an academic. He was a true scholar, but he wrote for the masses. His Notes On Dialectics was an introduction to Hegal written for sharecroppers.

James had many lives - Trinidadian novelist, Lancashire cricket correspondent, Detroit Trotksyist, Pan-africanist, Brixtonian. Also worth reading are his cricket book, Beyond a Boundary, and his book on Melville, Renegades, Mariners and Castaways, but the best way of getting a sense of his breadth is collections like At the Rendezvous of Victory and Future in the Present, both sadly out of print. See the CLR James Institute. (Previous post: Nello.)

3. Hannah Arendt Essays in Understanding. I could have chosen any of Arendt's books - her most well-known Origins of Totalitarianism, which carefully provides the tools to understand the terrible forms of oppression which dominated the twentieth century, her sadly neglected polemics within Zionism collected in The Jew as Pariah, or Men in Dark Times, her book of homages to Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, George Lessing and Brecht.

Essays in Undertanding, though, is the best place to start who want to experience Arendt's importance to the political situation today - essays like "The Eggs Speak Up", which takes its title from Lenin's nostrum that you can't make an omlette without cracking an egg.

(If you can't get hold of Essays, try The Portable Hannah Arendt. Previous post: The real axis of evil.)

4. Richard Sennett The Conscience of the Eye. This is not Sennett's most accessible book (his recent books on work culture, The Corrosion of Character, and the welfare state, Respect, are easier to read), but it's my favourite. Essentially, it asks how we can live in cities, how we can live together despite our differences. Sennett was Arendt's student and, like her, he resists easy categorisation in terms of right and left, liberal and conservative. His Fall of Public Man is an attack on countercultural rebellion; Flesh and Stone is explicitly written as a religious believer, but also is in homage to Sennett's friend Foucault; while Corrosion of Character is about as socialist as it gets in mainstream publishing. Some of his writing is on-line here.

5. W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful non-fiction books there is. It is soaked in the language of the King James Bible, each chapter opening with a snatch of music from a spritual. It moves between the personal (I cry every time I read "The Passing of the First-Born", on the death of his son) and the political, the ethnographic and the activist, in a way that today's academic writings, confined within strict disciplinary boundaries, simpy aren't allowed to. It's a long way from Souls to afrocentrism.


No doubt clinche, but Hobsbawm's 'Age of Capital' is a dynamic and awe inpsiring account of industrial take off. A critical loveletter to the revolutionary Bourgeois in their pomp.

Kepel's 'Jihad: The trail of Political Islam' makes the complicated case for Islamism modernistic nature concisely and with verve.

I would add (again) Roger Griffin's brilliant 'Modernism and Fascism'. Witty, imaginative and grinds older interpretations into the ground
Flesh said…
To my shame I read academic literature from social history disciplines very little but I agree about Modernism and Fascism. It's a mind-blower. I find it difficult to explain why it is so important to me. I've always been frustrated by people who quote that Specials song at me, about ending your friendship if you find your friend is racist. Before I knew who he was, I found myself next to Roger Griffin at lunch at a small free conference on antisemitism. He said that fascism is all around us, is strong and enduring, and we must never take our eyes off it. Apart from a brilliant side-step of the postmodernist debate about truth and right, Modernism and Fascism strips the disgust away from response to the Nazis and naturalises their way of thinking in such a way NOT that you think that these ways of thinking are acceptable, but in such a way that you notice them around you and the importance of quietly resisting them in your own circles becomes clear. The scope - art, dance, literature, architecture - is also terribly impressive.

Other than that, thanks Bob. I love recommendations from friends. I will begin with the Poverty of Theory.
Entdinglichung said…
some books I also find important:

* Fernand Braudel: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries

* Marc Bloch: Feudal Society

* Georg Mosse: The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich

* Carlo Ginzburg: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller

* Ulrich Herbert: Best. Biographische Studien über Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft (study about the leading nazi Werner Best, giving a good analysis of the mindset of a generation of German academics in that period)

there are also a number of good books by authors already named (Thompson, Hobsbawm) and by some other "members" of the Annales school like LeGoff, Duby, Le Roy Ladurie (who became unfortunately an anti-communist conservative) ... and I shouldn't forget studies by Raul Hillberg, Saul Friedländer, Christopher Browning, etc. on the Schoah

I loved it. The primordial responce to crisis has so many possible applications, Chartism, Bolshevikism, Jacobinism, Islamism, it is a truely exciting model with an inbuild respect for the particulars and the problems with metanarratives. (Full disclosure, Griffin marked my dissertation)


Chris Browning work is stunning. Makes Goldhagen look like the talentless show pony he is.
Entdinglichung said…
@ socialrepublican

I know, there were even allegations of plagiarism against Goldhagen by some "friends" of Browning ... at least, Goldhagen did some important and pioneering research on the topic of the behaviour of the German population towards the death marches 1944/45 and he brought the discussion back to the importance of antisemitic ideology after the discourse among historians in German speaking countries was in a kind of deadlock between "intentionalist" and "structuralist" interpretations

'at least, Goldhagen did some important and pioneering research on the topic of the behaviour of the German population towards the death marches 1944/45'

Well, much of his research is corrupted by the overpowering mono-casuality he pushes. For instance, he mentions that the guards on the death marches threw back bread thrown by German civilians to the 'prisoners' and threatened them. The fact that this might contradict his point that Germans and Germans alone were all in joyous league to kill Jews does not get a look-in.

I agree that the nature of anti-Semitism had been over looked by much of the literature. But Goldhagen, who creates in the introduction a useful model of various types of a/s, then makes german a/s an homogenous bloc of equal 'density' across the population. It is refried 'Luther to Auschwitz' but with a nasty quasi-pornographic edge. It adds nothing
Jason said…
This is a great site that you have here. You should be proud. I have a debate site myself and I would like to exchange links with you. We have to stick together. Let me know. Jason
Mike said…
Just saw this thread; I'll have to think a bit more, but one book immediately springs to mind: William Cronon's massive tome, "Nature's Metropolis," is a fantastic work of history that should be known far more widely than it is. An ecological and economic history of the growth of Chicago during the 19th century, it focuses on the relationship between the emerging city and the rapidly changing country-side. In places it can be arcane (the section on bankruptcy records is pretty dry, for instance), but most of it is simply brilliant, and quite accessible as far as academic texts go. There is a fantastic explanation of the grain and hog markets, which were the precursors to the futures and derivatives markets that have been so closely related to our current economic crisis. Anyway, a wonderful book that was a turning point in my decision to become a historian.
Anonymous said…
David Widgery, Some Lives! A GP's East End (1993)
TNC said…
I have two lists for you, Bob. A “then” list which reflects my politics/perspective in my 20s and a “now” list which reflects my perspective ten years later. You’ll notice some overlap. I may write a post on these titles at my blog at some point but I am too busy enjoying the end of summer right now...

Both lists are in alpha order according to author’s last name:


Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices.

George Esenwein. Anarchist Ideology and the Working-Class Movement in Spain, 1868-1898.

Benjamin Martin. The Agony of Modernization: Labor and Industrialization in Spain.

James Martin. Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism, 1827-1908.

William Reichert. Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism.

William I. Robinson. Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony.

William H. Sewell. Language and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848.

James Weinstein. The Corporate Ideal and the Liberal State, 1900-1918.


Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices.

George Esenwein. Anarchist Ideology and the Working-Class Movement in Spain, 1868-1898.

George Nash. The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America Since 1945.

Karl Popper. The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1 and 2.

William H. Sewell. Language and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848.

Michael Seidman. Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War and Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts.

Steinfeld. Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century.

Zeev Sternhell. Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France.
Martin Meenagh said…
Hi Bob

Sorry that I didn't respond immediately. Taking your injunction widely, I'd list the following books which more people should read, even though they were not necessarily written for a wide audience;

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcississm

Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (or for that matter, The Passion, or The Authentic Gospel of Jesus)

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of The American Revolution

Karl Marx, Das Kapital

J.G.A.Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment

The Koran and the Tanakh, alongside Anthony Kenny or Richard Tarmas on the intellectual history of Western Philosophy

Carl Richard, The Founders and The Classics

There are plenty of other books that kept me up at night--Gibbon, Aquianas, Augustine, and George Eliot, or Kant, Harold Bloom and Burke on Aesthetics spring to mind--but those above had a fairly long-lasting impact on the way I think. I've liked all the books you mentioned, bar Sennett, which I couldn't get into. Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia are faourites of mine too, but they write for an audience better than they write academically, so I'd be outside your terms of reference if I included them.

I liked Marc Bloch too. Phillipe Burin, whom I'm reading at the minute on Nazi anti-semitism is somehow more convincing to me than Goldhagen. And yes, de la roy ladurie is excellent.

Thanks for the link!
Mike S. said…
Thought of another one: Alasdair MacIntyre's "Short History of Ethics." This book was probably the last philosophy book I truly loved reading, and mostly that was because it took a wonderfully historical look at the development of western philosophy. In my memory, the chapter on "New Values" was particularly well put together.
bob said…
Thanks Martin and Mike. There's so much in all this that I'm totally unfamiliar with. I've never read any Marc Bloch; I clearly have to. I've not read Chris Browning; again I clearly have to. Keep em coming folks.

(Oh, and Mike, feel free to do your five words!)
Anonymous said…
hi bob--

welcome back! hope this is ok, but here's my list of 5 academic books that should find a wider audience:

1. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. in my opinion, his comments on the relation between postmodernism and flexible capitalist accumulation strategies still provide an excellent understanding of how we got to where we are today.

2. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. i like this book not despite, but because of its apocalyptic narrative and how it reveals los angeles as the city that is simultaneously utopia and dystopia. or, as a critic put it, "LA is a sunlit mortuary where you can rot without feeling it." (full disclosure: i lived in los angeles and southern california as a teenager/young adult from 1965-1975 and never once went surfing).

3. Istvan Meszaros, Marx's theory of alienation. One of the best discussions/extrapolations of Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

4. Anthony Heilbut, Exiled In Paradise. This book is a study of various german intellectuals and artists, ranging from brecht to arendt to mann, who fled the nazis and wound up in the states and what happened to them when they got here. as one who was born to the children of immigrants (actually, one immigrant child and one a child of immigrants) all i can say is "america is one tough town."

5. Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. what's particularly good about this book is the way the author dissects the (unexpected) role played by early modernist and avant-garde movements vis-a-vis capitalist urban planning and the world of work.

Martin Meenagh said…
I'd second Anonymous' recommendation of Mike Davis, though I prefer his other two-- 'ecology of fear' and 'planet of slums'.
Anonymous said…
yes, martin, those two other books by davis are very good, especially "ecology of fear.". i chose "city of quartz" partly because it was one of those books which, after it was published, helped to refocus attention on the city, but also for personal reasons, i suppose.

and for you, i'd like to suggest:

Origins: Creation Texts from the Ancient Near East edited and translated by Charles Doria and Harris Lenowitz. Long out of print, i'm afraid, but a very far-ranging work.

The Other Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone. Contains psuedepigrapha, apocrypha, gnostic scriptures, material from the dead sea scrolls, etc.

but, when it comes to antiquity, i think i'd rather read the greek anthology than aurelius.

bob said…
Les, thanks for a great list that resonates with me.

I lived in Southern California very briefly and never surfed either. I prefer City of Quartz to Ecology of Fear and have not read Planet of the Slums. City of Quartz was, I think, a ground-breaking book at the time in terms of bursting genres, creating a new genre, and making a certain kind of rigorous Marxist thought accessible to the non-initiated.

I've had Istvan Meszaros sitting on my shelf forbiddingly for many years now; maybe I should tuck in.
Martin Meenagh said…
Cheers, les, I'll have a look at 'The Other Bible', though I like Bart Ehrman's work on the same material. I make no claims for Aurelius's superiority--he is in some ways a bit of an Harold Macmillan-style ham. But, as with City of Quartz, I have my own reasons!
darren redstar said…
Bob- feudal society by marc Bloch is superb, but to my mind his 'the royal touch'(on the history of the myth of french and english kings ability to cure scrofula through touching) is simply sublime!
I have not yet read his book on the occupation 'strange defeat' but I intend to soon