Books interview: David Harvey

The eminent anthropologist on Gielgud, T. S. Eliot, the big blind spots of big data, and a very tatty copy of Marx’s Grundrisse

February 4, 2016
David Harvey, City University of New York Graduate School

What literature captivated you in your youth?
At school I did a lot of acting and got to like Shakespeare, as well as the metaphysical poets (Donne, Marvell) and T. S. Eliot (Four Quartets to this day I consider truly beautiful). My reading was closely associated with my habit of taking the early morning “workman’s special” train to London at 6.30am and getting into the queue for theatre performances of Shakespeare: Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Gielgud, even Orson Welles as Othello, which was truly memorable. I think a lot of this helped me in later years as a lecturer.

Your Companion to Marx’s Capital helped many. Who helped you read Capital?
I read the first volume of Capital for the first time with a reading group mainly composed of graduate students in 1970. We were all confused and discontented with the social scientific frameworks of knowledge that seemed incapable of helping us to understand the turmoil in the cities, the diverse responses to the civil rights movement, a war in Vietnam that was obviously more than a little bit animated by imperialist ambitions and the stifling approach to knowledge in academia. We turned to Marx to see if there was anything there that could enlighten us, and most of us concluded that there was, even though none of us (that includes me) considered ourselves “Marxist”.

What book by an early career scholar has impressed you of late?
I really enjoyed Sian Lazar’s El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia. An anthropologist working closely with people and groups on the ground in one of the most astonishing cities in the world, she concluded, as did previous researchers, that while there was a lot of turmoil and tumult, any revolutionary transformation was very unlikely – only to find in the midst of writing up that revolutionary uprisings were radically transforming Bolivia and establishing a new political regime that brought Evo Morales to power. She returned to El Alto to ask how she got it so wrong. I was drawn to this account because such a great deal of confidence is placed in measurable data and we increasingly rely on the analysis of vast datasets. For me, it is the immeasurable but objective that is so vital, and this is captured to some degree in this book. The idea that if we cannot measure it then it does not exist is one of the most dangerous, foolish ideas of our times.

What is your favourite work of fiction?  
When I was a kid I had to read Dickens and I hated it. But in my thirties I started reading Dickens and loved it, and to this day my favourite book is Bleak House. As an urbanist I am excited by the way Dickens captures the qualities of urban life with the incredible culminating transect of London’s environments as the detective Bucket searches for the lost Lady Dedlock. It is not only the description of the environments, but also how Bucket gets his information about the city that intrigues me. It’s a brilliant characterisation of investigative method. Whenever I get to a new city I imagine I am Inspector Bucket trying to find out what makes it work.

You have described Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism as the most dangerous book you have written. If books still have the power to be dangerous, why is burning or banning them still a relatively rare tactic by governments or other authorities?
It is not so long ago that to have a copy of Marx on your bookshelf was likely to get you “disappeared” in many Latin American military dictatorships, and the confiscation of “dangerous texts” is daily occurring in many parts of the world. In our little corner of the world this does not happen, because other less strident means of censorship and ideological control are in place to keep dangerous books “in their place” and the sentiments they express and impart limited in their impacts. Meanwhile the powers that professionalise self-censorship are also effective in limiting the formulation and impact of dangerous ideas.

What is the last book you gave as a gift?
I give away as many of my own books as I can to eager readers on my travels and I quickly exhaust my supply.

What books are on your desk waiting to be read?
I have so many books I should and want to read that I do not know where to start. But whenever I am struggling to understand something, I find myself going back to reading Marx, particularly the Grundrisse, which is an astonishing trove of enlightenment, speculation and inspiration. I know it sounds boring, but I often carry my tattered and torn copy of that text around the world as I travel. So you may spot me in an airport going “wow” as I get yet another interesting idea out of reading the Grundrisse.

David Harvey is distinguished professor of anthropology, City University of New York Graduate School, and author, most recently, of The Ways of the World (Profile). ‘Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey’ is a free, 25-lecture online course. 

Reading Marx’s Capital Volume I with David Harvey

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