Times Higher Education’s best book reviews of 2018

Matthew Reisz reflects on a sobering year in academic books that was thankfully enlivened by stories of Barbie dolls, chimpanzees and sex under socialism

December 31, 2018
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Books have been looking back to the past to find perspective, consolation and hope

We are living in politically grim times, so it is no surprise that the current state of affairs has influenced the books written by academics this year. A very significant proportion of the review copies that landed on my desk were more or less openly haunted by Trump and Brexit. They desperately explored what went wrong, why we didn’t see it coming, how we need to rethink many cherished assumptions – and (sometimes) concluded with a few suggestions about how to put things right.

I am obviously keen for the Books pages in Times Higher Education to range widely and not get stuck on a single note (especially not an ominous one), but in January alone titles up for consideration included Journeys from the Abyss, Urban Rage, Has Democracy Failed Women? and The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Admittedly, Steven Pinker made an optimistic “case for reason, science, humanism and progress” in Enlightenment Now, reviewed very favourably by Biancamaria Fontana in February, but he was something of a lone voice of hope among the titles addressing the political sphere. 

Fortunately, alongside food for sombre reflection, there was much to celebrate and ponder beyond politics in this year’s books and some room for a good deal of entertainment. I was fascinated to read Farida Vis’ review of Matthew Salganik’s Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age, a bold guide to what she described as “the possibilities and challenges [for researchers] of making the most of the multiple digital traces created online”. Anyone wanting a sense of the exciting potential of big data in the social sciences would do well to start here.

I was equally delighted to hear about a book that Laura Kehoe described as providing “a comprehensive view of wild chimpanzees as never before seen”, Craig Stanford’s The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First Portrait of Our Closest Kin. “Have you ever wondered how long alpha male chimps can hold on to power? Or whether chimp mums raise their daughters differently to their sons?” she asked, rightly implying that there would be few readers who didn’t find these questions intriguing.

Meanwhile, in one of the funniest reviews I published this year, Laura Frost examined the great intellectual property battle over the Barbie and Bratz dolls analysed in Orly Lobel’s You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side. The book offered, she suggested, “a lipstick-pink mirror to both American consumer society and corporate misbehaviour”.

Those of us deeply unimpressed by the current crop of politicians were also given consolation, albeit rather downbeat, by the realisation that earlier generations were just as problematic. “Anyone who believes that the 2016 referendum was uniquely demagogic would do well to read Yes to Europe!wrote Vernon Bogdanor in his highly entertaining review of Robert Saunders’ recent book, subtitled “The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain”.

In his review, Bogdanor reminded us that, “In 1975, Edward Heath declared that ‘a vote against the Market could lead to a Soviet invasion of Europe’ and predicted a return to ration books and food shortages. He went on to suggest that Tony Benn would have welcomed a Nazi invasion in 1940. Enoch Powell compared the pro-marketeers to the men of Munich, while Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church declared that a vote for Europe, as well as being a vote for ‘Rome’, was also a vote for ‘Dictatorship’ and ‘Anti-Christ’. Paisley himself insisted that the European Community owed ‘its first allegiance to the Pope and recognises the ultimate authority of the Vatican’.”

"These cries make the promise of £350 million a week extra for the health service seem positively statesmanlike,” Bogdanor commented. 

The truth, he added sagely, is that “referendums and elections never have borne and never will bear the least resemblance to academic seminars”.  

A different way of seeking comfort in the past can be found in a book that probably wins the prize for the best title of the year: Kristen Ghodsee’s Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. As Lynne Segal’s review makes clear, this does indeed include research comparing orgasm frequency, sexual satisfaction and reproductive rights in Western Europe and the former Eastern bloc.

But while Ghodsee “has no desire to play down the murderous horrors and terrible restrictions inflicted on citizens in one-party states, most spectacularly, of course, under Stalin and Mao”, she also wants us to acknowledge that “capitalism disproportionately harms women” and that we still might have something to learn from societies dismissed during the Cold War as simply dreary and “totally repressive”.

I am grateful to my team of reviewers, and for the publishers that have produced such a range of challenging books for them to respond to. As some of the forthcoming titles mentioned in our list of Winter Reads suggest, plenty of further intellectual excitements and delights await in 2019. I only wish the political future looked as rosy. 

Matthew Reisz is books editor at Times Higher Education

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