A little light reading for hard times

Amid all the doom and gloom, to which self-help books can academics turn for some cheer?

November 30, 2017
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These are grim times for academics in the US and UK. Many clearly experienced Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as assaults on their personal values and identities as well as highly uncongenial in terms of likely policy and funding implications. It is around now that I start trying to get to grips with the books coming out in the first half of next year. Many, of course, look informative and intellectually stimulating. But is there much that might help brighten the gloom?

Academics have a certain wariness about publishing what others describe as “self-help books”. But there are always some examples, including a couple coming in January. Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret (Oxford University Press) consists of a series of dialogues between Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore and claims to be “about living thoughtfully, and certainly not about dying, gracefully or otherwise”. It examines annuities and age-gap couples, Cicero and cosmetic surgery, King Lear and Diane Keaton. If a philosophical analysis that draws widely on both high and popular culture, as well as public policy issues, can really help us cope with the challenges of later life, this book should certainly be it.

In The Other Side of Happiness: Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living (Allen Lane), meanwhile, Brock Bastian wants us to acknowledge that “hardship and sadness are neither antithetical to pleasure nor incidental to it: they are necessary for happiness”. Given that many of us confidently predict more “hardship and sadness” (at least in the political domain) coming down the line, this must, I think, count as good news.

Along with these books we see a steady stream of publications devoted to Brexit, Trump, rising tides of populism and racism, and how the Left can fight back. These are all manifestly topics that can benefit from serious academic attention, but it’s hard not to feel that these books are often also exercises in academics trying to cheer themselves up. Since many liberals clearly missed major political and cultural shifts going on beneath the surface, the temptation now is to try to go back, trace what was happening after the event, flag up future worrying trends and then desperately scan the horizon for signs of hope. Although this is obviously better than giving up in despair, real evidence that things are likely to get better in 2018 seems pretty thin.

The other alternative is to turn to humour. This year, academics have their very own equivalent of a Christmas joke book in the form of Glen Wright’s Academia Obscura: The hidden silly side of higher education (Unbound). This is based on a blog and contains much amusing detail on the “frequency of clichés used in medical article titles”; miscellaneous silly titles for papers (“Local Pancake Defeats Axis of Evil”); research on homosexual necrophilia in ducks and oral sex among bats; “male, mad and muddleheaded” academics in children’s books; and even conference bingo. And how can you most easily ruin a date with an academic in five words? Try “Is that all you’ve published?” or “So people read your articles?” Sometimes you just have to laugh.


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