Five Books

by Richard Jenkins


Which five books would I read if I were starting out on a career as a graduate student all over again? If I were going to start again -- and I'm not wholly sure that I would, since there are so many other interesting things to do in the world today -- I suppose the key question is, if I could do it all over again, would I still do it all over in social anthropology? Accepting that I would -- for me, anthropology remains the most fun that you have within a university with your clothes on -- then my choice of five books didn't take much thinking about in the first place. That was the easy bit. Two of them, however, I left by the wayside immediately: C. Wright Mills's Sociological Imagination and Marx's Capital, because Tim Ingold picked them in the last issue of assemblage. So I've really picked seven books. I chose the five others because they offer necessary general lessons for people like us, and because I really enjoyed them. And it's vital that we should enjoy what we do. Breaking with assemblage convention there are no novels, however; pick your own pool-side reading....

Let's begin with The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. Plain Words first appeared in 1948; the most recent update was published by HMSO in 1986. Written as part of a Civil Service campaign to improve the clarity, precision, and brevity of official English, it is a wonderful guide to how to write plain English -- and academia could do with a lot more of that. There is such an enormous amount of wilfully obscure, bad writing around -- in both the humanities and the social sciences -- that we should hang our collective head in shame. Our students, if no-one else, deserve better from us, and we owe it to ourselves to recognise better the difference between being clever and being difficult to understand. It is a bonus that Gowers is also wonderfully entertaining in places: check out, for example, pp. 141-2 of the 1986 edition, on the distinction between 'shall' and 'will'. This should be on everybody's desk; it is on mine, and I use it still.

Next comes Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades, in three volumes (cheating again, that brings me up to nine books). First published in 1951, it has been reprinted by Cambridge University Press many times, and it still appears to be in print. Beautifully written -- Sir Ernest would have approved -- this is a classic example of old-fashioned narrative history. It is a powerful reminder that, even if we abandon, as I think we should, grand meta-narratives, having a thread which connects beginning, middle, and end is essential. It is also evidence for the centrality of history to any adequate understanding of the contemporary world. The last fifty years in the Near East cannot be understood without going back at least as far as the Crusades (and actually further). I could say something similar about the Balkans, and so on. If you cannot get the History, go for the same author's Sicilian Vespers -- another ripping yarn.

If some engagement with history is indispensable -- and archaeologists, of course, don't really need to be told that -- then disciplinarity is, in at least some senses, completely dispensable. One of the best examples of creative, exhilarating indiscipline is Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a collection of essays which became a counter-culture classic when it first appeared in 1972. I suspect that it is out of print in Britain now; my Paladin paperback was borrowed and trashed (devoured is the appropriate word) by a graduate student more than ten years ago and a replacement had to wait until a trip to the States a couple of years later. In his lifetime Bateson contributed to anthropology, psychiatry, cybernetics, the philosophy of science, the study of cetacean communication, and evolutionary biology. They are all covered here. The unifying thread is his concern with how Order happens (and what it is). As a reminder of the importance of pattern, order, and connectedness, on the one hand, and the artificiality of institutionalised intellectual disciplines, on the other, Bateson cannot be bettered. He too writes well. Put it on the same bookshelf as all those books about chaos and complexity.

Complexity and connectedness -- and, indeed, more beautiful writing and clarity of exposition -- are at the heart of my fourth choice: Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life; I have the Hutchinson Radius hardback of 1990, but it's more usually seen in a Penguin edition these days. This is really three books in one: a narrative of the discovery and subsequent scholarly history of the Burgess Shale fossils and their associated palaeontologists; a careful and engrossing analytical account of the Cambrian arthropods whose fossils were found in the Shale, their life and environment, and their place in the scheme of things; and finally an argument about the arbitrariness and contingency of evolution which substantially destabilises the Darwinian model. Another blow against meta-narratives! Apart from the engrossing specifics of prehistoric invertebrates, and a vertiginous sense of the enormity of time, the way in which Gould weaves the three themes together offers a tutorial in understanding the complexities of the world, and recognising their connectedness, without falling into the traps laid by conventional wisdom or mistaking theory for what actually goes on (what Bourdieu calls mistaking 'the reality of the model' for 'the model of reality'). In other words, he offers an open mind at work. Always useful.

Apropos open minds, the last book is The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. The French original dates from 1960; the English translation, which has appeared in a range of editions, was originally called The Dawn of Magic. This is another book of which I am on to my second copy (somebody stole the first round about 1970 or so). It's not a work of fiction ... or is it? I don't know. It's a sustained argument that our understanding of the world is trammelled by convention and that it is -- maybe -- a much weirder place than is dreamed of in our ivory-towered philosophies. Dedicated to the possibility of other frames of reference (and, therefore, other worlds), the authors discuss along the way everything from Charles Fort, to the National Socialist physics of Horbiger, to Gurdjieff and the occult. Whether or not the perspectives they touch upon are 'right' or 'true' is not the point; it is the status of our points of view that is really at issue.

Many, many books, of course, had to be left out. Here is the indulgence of a name-check for some of the more significant: Max Weber's Economy and Society, Ervin Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Edmund Leach's Pul Eliya, Ladislav Holy and Milan Stuchlik's Actions, Norms and Representations, Kurt Wolff's The Sociology of Georg Simmel, and, finally, nearly anything by Fredrik Barth.

Richard Jenkins is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield. Trained as a social anthropologist (after two years of archaeology), he has carried out field research in Northern Ireland, the West Midlands -- really anthropologically exotic, that one -- south Wales, and Denmark. His main theoretical interest is trying to understand how social identity works. Among his books are Hightown Rules (1982), Lads, Citizens and Ordinary Kids (1983), Racism and Recruitment (1986), Pierre Bourdieu (1992), Social Identity (1996), Rethinking Ethnicity(1997) and Questions of Competence (1998). His first novel, The Archaeologist, has just been published by Citron Press, a new publishing venture. For more details on his interests and research, visit his web page.

Copyright © R. Jenkins 1998


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