Five Books

by Robin Dennell


Five books worth recommending to a postgrad novitiate? Very tricky: my mind at present is currently preoccupied with Upper Siwalik palaeontology (which is very boring to anyone remotely normal); also, we rarely recommend anything these days to students outside essential texts, given the pressures of submission dates and so on; and what I read 30 years ago is no use now, as my first postgraduate research was on early farming in Bulgaria, and not on early hominids in south Asia. In any case, there are so many wonderful books to read -- and so many awful ones to avoid.... I'll leave out some of my favourite types of books, like climbing guides, wood-working texts, and spy thrillers, and stick to ones of a wider relevance.

Let's start with William Golding's Rites of Passage.It's excellent for a prehistorian, as it shows how the same events can be seen in completely different ways. Being Golding, it's also very moving, thought-provoking, and superbly crafted. In the same vein, I'd recommend Niall Fergusson's Imagined History, which shows the dangers of seeing major historical events as the inevitable outcomes of long-term processes. (Of course the latter are important, but everyone goes on about them these days, especially palaeoanthropologists; someone else is bound to have mentioned Braudel's book on the Mediterranean, or Dawkins on biology). Whilst still on history (which is my main bedtime reading, mainly European and modern Middle Eastern), I'd recommend Eric Hobsbawn's The Age of Extremes, if only to make one realise how exceptionally fortunate post- war West Europeans are.

I feel I should also mention something written on early prehistory in the last ten years. It's difficult, as I find most of the general accounts too banal and most of the specialist reports of the essential-but-unreadable kind. The acid test is what I've read on a Greek beach. One of the few in this class is Clive Gamble's Timewalkers: I disagree with much of it, but I like its grand narrative, sense of vision, and evidence of wide, thoughtful reading. Ian Tattersall's The Fossil Trail was another that I read on a beach: it's a good account of the interactions between researchers, each other, and their data, in this case fossil hominids. In the current academic culture, I suppose I ought to recommend something on stress and time management, networking, study skills, etc. but they're too ghastly to think about in mid-summer. So as a cat-freak, I'll end with Felidae -- a crime thriller about cats: total escapism, a good yarn, very gothic, and nothing whatsoever to do with universities or archaeology.

Professor Robin Dennell is a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Sheffield. His published work includes European Economic Prehistory: A New Approach (1983). His main research interests are hominid evolution and Palaeolithic archaeology, and he has done several seasons of field work relating to this in Pakistan, finding stone tools from over 2 million years ago. He is the Field Director of the British Archaeological Mission to Pakistan.

Copyright © R. Dennell 1998


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