Five Books

by Richard Bradley


A friend of mine who teaches English literature went to visit a poet well known for his strong opinions. As they talked, my friend became aware of hundreds of books in the room. They were organised in no conceivable order. Quite different writers were juxtaposed, the centuries met side by side, verse contending with prose, and fiction with drama. In the end, he had to ask the basis on which his host had organised his shelves. The books were arranged in order of merit, and their positions were always changing.

Organising books in such a manner is an impossible objective, but so is choosing five books to which I am particularly attached. I acquire books faster than I can read them, and I read several of them simultaneously. When I go to a library to check a particular source, I am more than likely to end up looking at something quite different. All the better if I have never heard of it before. My five books would probably change from month to month, but does that matter?

What would I recommend in the following books? In no particular order: imagination, good writing, and a freedom from dogma. The first and last are essential for anyone doing research. Good writing -- too rare in archaeology -- is an absolute requirement, if anyone is going to read your work more than once.

And which books do I suggest? Again, in no particular order:

  1. Clifford Geertz's Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Polity Press, 1988) -- How do academics write? What techniques do they use to persuade their audience? These are fashionable questions, but all too often they are discussed by people with no talent for expressing their ideas. Works and Lives is an exception. In a series of pointed and witty essays, Geertz studies the literary models employed by famous anthropologists. Did you know that Malinowski modelled himself on Conrad, and Lévi-Straus on the poet Mallarmé? An enjoyable way of being made to think.
  2. Tim Ingold's The Appropriation of Nature (Manchester University Press, 1986) -- Some books will not let you go. I have been reading this since it was published and keep returning to it from different directions. It is a wonderful source of lucid thinking and intellectual daring, clearly written but also demanding. It is packed with arresting ideas, and you can sense the author's excitement as he came to write them down.
  3. Patrick Wright's The Village that Died for England (Vintage, 1996) -- This is a history of the military occupation of the Dorset village of Tyneham and of the campaigns to return it to its original inhabitants. But it is much more that this. It is an infinitely subtle parable about the politics of landscape; there is even a walk-on part for General Pitt River's fascist grandson. Wright makes a dazzling array of connections to create what is really a masterpiece of English irony.
  4. Britt Solli's Narratives of Veøy (Oslo University, 1996) -- Subtitled 'An Investigation into the Poetics and Scientifics of Archaeology', this is a PhD thesis written with immense verve. It captures the realities of conducting field research: the growing involvement in a particular landscape and the personal engagement that it always entails. But the thesis is not ponderous or self-regarding like most essays in this genre. Instead, it is idiosyncratic, stylish, and witty.
  5. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (Picador, 1979) -- Archaeologists have finally left a phase in which they did everything they could to deny their creativity and shackle their imagination. The interest in landscape, metaphor, and material culture in the last few years can only be a liberation, but how sad that so many of the results are difficult to read. Calvino's book describes a series of fantastic cities, all of which are versions of Venice. I used an excerpt to introduce a book of mine years ago. I would like to quote his work from end to end.

Richard Bradley is a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading (UK). He teaches British prehistory and is a noted authority on the subject. His fieldwork has concentrated on prehistoric settlements, monuments, and landscapes in England (Cranborne Chase, Dorset), and Scotland (Clava Cairns). He has recently been working on prehistoric rock art in northern Britain and in Spain. His publications include The Social Foundations of Prehistoric Britain, Interpreting the Axe Trade, The Passage of Arms: An Archaeological Analysis of Prehistoric Hoards and Votive Deposits, Altering the Earth: The Origins of Monuments in Britain and Europe.

Copyright © R. Bradley 1998


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