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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A year of reading with OUP authors

We surveyed a few of Oxford University Press’s authors to see what they thought were the best books of 2013…

“It was widely known that I would like this book; I was given it on my birthday three times. (And I’d already bought it for myself anyway.) Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane is not merely another great fantasy story from the author of Sandman, friend of Dave McKean and husband to Amanda Palmer. This is a beautifully written book about how children interpret the behaviour of grown-ups. It’s his most personal work to date — and my favourite. Gaiman signed about 75,000 copies on his 2013 tour (according to his blog). When my family and I caught up with him in Manchester, UK, he spoke passionately about everything from Doctor Who to his new Sandman comics — and his wonderful speech ‘Make Good Art’. 2013 was a big year for Gaiman fans. Up close, he did look a little tired.”
Dan Davis, author of Compatibility Gene: How Our Bodies Fight Disease, Attract Others and Define Ourselves

9781250033345“My favorite book of the year was Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s about the assassination in Prague, 1942, of Reinhard Heydrich by a young Czech and a young Slovak, parachuted in from London. He calls it a historical novel, and it is sort of that, but the “narrative” alternates with journal entries from the semi-tormented author who hates historical novels, even if he’s trying to write one, and feels ashamed because he loves research and he loves getting facts right. It’s about trying to go back inside the past where the events you’re narrating happened, and how that’s heartbreakingly impossible, and about trying to do justice to all kinds of historical characters (except the loathsome Heydrich, who doesn’t deserve any justice!) even if they don’t fit into the plot – and most of all, about trying to reverse history to save the characters you’ve grown attached to. Laurent Binet is my favorite historian of the year, (even if he says the book is a novel) because he gets under the skin of all passionate historians.”
Elizabeth Kendall, author of Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer

“Neil’s Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane: A man remembers. ‘I want to remember,’ his seven-year-old self says. Told from the perspective of a child marked by his realizations decades later of those experiences, this lovely book touches on memory making and the process of remembering, and that murky divide between children and grown-ups, what is real and imagined. ‘Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups in the whole wide world,’ Lettie Hempstock tells the narrator. Naïve and nightmarish, this fantastical tale traces to the creation of this world, to ‘the language of shaping.’ Memories and worlds inhabit humans’ very beings, and bacteria can be instructed to leave a boy’s teeth alone. The seven-year-old/middle-aged narrator hovers — and it seems this book taps into my own somatic memory — between alienation and belonging; between the narrator’s encounters (what actually happens), the gaps (how he makes sense of it and how others engage with and interpret the same events), and the questions (if how one remembers can change whether events ever happened and the power of a magical old Mrs. Hempstock who can ‘snip and stitch’ to change what really happened). ‘I don’t remember,’ the middle-aged man says. ‘It’s easier that way,’ he’s told. Neil Gaiman reads his audiobook gently and starkly.”
Abbie Reese, author of Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns

embers“There are few works that justify the adjective ‘magisterial,’ but Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, seems worthy of the acclaim. In recounting the demise of the French empire in Indochina and the rise of American involvement in Southeast Asia after World War II, Logevall has written an essential work evaluating not only why nations go to war, but why they remain in war. This is history at its best—a compelling story combined with judicious analysis told through captivating, at times even gripping, narrative.”
Gregory Daddis, author of Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam

“Vanessa M. Gezari’s The Tender Soldier is nominally an account of the so-called Human Terrain Teams, groups of anthropologists and academics who embedded within the US military in Afghanistan. This moving and deeply disturbing tale unmasks a lot of the intellectual and moral hubris that surrounds foreign involvement in Afghanistan. A must read for anyone interested in foreign policy or America’s role in the world.”
Alex Strick van Linschoten, co-author of An Enemy We Created

“Max Boot’s Invisible Armies was a pleasure to read; a great look back at the long history of insurgencies that still trouble us today. Mark Mazetti’s The Way of the Knife is on the various ‘not-so-covert’ operations of the last decade and their consequences. It is the kind of book you wish had been out as some of these really bad ideas were happening. And on the fiction side: the Game of Thrones series, which I find myself rereading each year. It is addictive, wonderfully written, and bizarrely realistic (for a series with dragons in it…) to how people really act in politics and war.”
P.W. Singer, co-author of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know

9780195371796“My favorite books this year have been the set of studies by Christian Smith and colleagues about the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers and emerging adults. In particular, I gained much from Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Who can forget the amazing descriptor ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’ as well as the popular understanding of God they discovered from their interviewees, that is, as combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist. Great lecture material. I’ve also appreciated Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Even though these books came out a few years ago, they ‘have legs’ and are well worth your reading time.”
Linda Mercadente, author of Belief without Borders

A Just Defiance: Bombmakers, Insurgents, and the Treason Trial of the Delmas Four by Peter Harris is a gripping account of the last important trial of the apartheid era in South Africa. Unlike most books written by lawyers about cases in which they were involved, it is neither tedious nor self-aggrandizing. Instead, it reads like a legal thriller. Perhaps more importantly, it accurately and graphically describes the mood and events in South Africa in the late 1980s.”
Ken Broun, author of Saving Nelson Mandela

“Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light is the final volume in his magisterial Liberation Trilogy, a sweeping history of World War II. This work covers the last year of the war in Europe and is distinguished by its focus on how armies are built and how organizations wage war. It’s meticulously researched and gracefully written.”
Jeff Berry, co-author of The Outrage Industry

9780374532079“On a recent trip to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, I picked up Joan Didion’s The White Album (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2009 paperback edition; originally published in 1979). Didion provides an intimate insider’s perspective on both the seminal and mundane events that defined America during the late 1960s and 1970s. Over three decades old or more, these essays still feel alive and fresh, and seem to chronicle the cultural neuroses we still live with today including celebrity worship, consumerism, urban sprawl, surveillance and the limits of technology. But her portrayal of American life is as much sublime as dystopic; and as I read, I did feel myself Calfornia Dreamin’ circa 1974 a few times.”
Daniel Campo, author of The Accidental Playground

“Upon my return from World War II, my father presented me with a book on the world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘hopefully to inspire interest in a career in architecture.’ I was so taken with Wright that my life became involved with almost every aspect of the architect — which soon led me to return to France and Spain to study the tremendous variety of building styles; then a few years later to explore the archaeological ruins of Mexico and Central America, where I ultimately persuaded the American Museum of Natural History to allow me to produce a series of photographs of the pre-Columbian vestiges at a large number of sites; then back in the United States to conduct an ongoing series of architectural walking tours for New York University to study the many styles of domestic architecture in the heart of the city. This devotion to the influence of architecture on our daily lives resulted in the writing of my first book, a study of the Lower East Side’s historic religious institutions. There then followed a half-dozen guide books on New York and downtown Chicago; and in a completely different vein, a children’s book based on my experiences with birds that lived in my office at NYU. The pinnacle of my career as an author and architectural historian came last year with the publication by Fordham University Press of the Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side: A Retrospective and Contemporary View.”
Gerard Wolfe, author of Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side

“My choice is Alan Ryan’s On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, a 1000+-page epic-scale blockbuster originally published in 2012 by Allen Lane in the UK and by W.W. Norton & Company in the States, and reissued in a fat but handy paperback by Penguin Books in 2013. If one acid test of the quality of a book is the quality of the serious reviews it engenders or provokes, then On Politics passes that test with supreme ease, having been positively reviewed — and also profoundly if usually generously critiqued — on both sides of the English-speaking Atlantic and in Australasia by the likes of Adam Kirsch, Jeremy Waldron, Andrew Gamble, Mark Mazower and John Keane. Firmly located within both an Isaiah-Berlin-style ‘great thinkers’ tradition and a Western liberal-democratic ‘great books’ tradition, and open to left-field criticism precisely for choosing just that canon and that canonical approach, it is distinguished and defended by the brilliance of its analyses and the wit and wisdom on display throughout. The very subtitle is a challenge and provocation — was Herodotus a ‘political thinker’? The major themes broached, all subsumed by overarching questions of not just how best should we govern ourselves, but even should we govern ourselves, include the surely disturbing thought — going back to Herodotus — that modern (Western, liberal) states owe more to the ancient Persian empire than to ancient Greece (or the Roman Republic). The comparative-historical way that these themes and questions are broached by political-philosophical Alan Ryan (ex-Oxford Professor, now Princeton, again) makes the long meditated On Politics a must-read for anyone concerned to reconsider the current, global democratic deficit in the broadest long-run perspective.”
Paul Cartledge, author of After Thermopylae

Stay tuned for more best of 2013 blog posts…

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