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Praise and burials: our reviewers' verdicts on fellow academics' most fascinating, disgruntled, authoritative, wrong-headed, provocative, cerebral, paradigm-shifting, impenetrable and frankly naughty books of 2008

January 1, 2009

James Davidson is extremely sharp at separating mere sexual activity from the cultural discourse of 'Greek love': he knows that finding evidence of a quickie behind the gym does not challenge the power of social expectation

Simon Goldhill on The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece by James Davidson (10 January 2008)

How on earth can a man so vital and intelligent, so cultivated and florid be at the same time so unself-aware, so boastful and, so often, so confidently wrong?

Fred Inglis on My Unwritten Books by George Steiner (31 January 2008)

If you were half-expecting a discussion of striptease as an art form, you will be disappointed

Roy Harris on Censoring the Body by Edward Lucie-Smith (31 January 2008)

To name a child Helen in this period, Laurie Maguire suggests, was tantamount to naming a child Adolf today

Philip Schwyzer on Shakespeare's Names by Laurie Maguire (7 February 2008)

Heinemann clearly know how to produce an attention-grabbing title. With sex and money covered, I am surprised they did not manage to get Hitler in there as well

Sir Howard Davies on Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money by Terence Kealey (21 February 2008)

The editors maintain that the conventional distinction between journalism and literature is simply the product of prejudice by English professors who refuse to recognise the literary merits of the Daily Mail

Gary Day on The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter by Richard Keeble and Sharon Wheeler (21 February 2008)

As Jeffrey Bennett has an American audience in mind, this leads to analogies and quantitative information that are sometimes incomprehensible: 'Earth ... would orbit far enough from the Sun for almost two downs in football.' I have absolutely no idea what this means

Lisa Jardine-Wright on Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and its Astonishing Implications for our Future by Jeffrey Bennett (13 March 2008)

De Beauvoir's love letters ... have been a source of particular fascination to some who cite them as if to demean her intellectual achievement, erroneously believing that feminists do not fall in love or need a sense of humour

Ursula Tidd on Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman by Toril Moi (13 March 2008)

The downside here is the writing. 'This book, as you know since you have picked it up, is called The English Question; and so it is actually about the relations between knowledge and freedom.' It takes a remarkable work to recover from an opening sentence as bad as that ... Most of the time, Thomas Docherty sounds like a disgruntled Scottish nationalist just recovering from a severe bout of postmodernism

Roy Harris on The English Question or Academic Freedoms by Thomas Docherty (20 March 2008)

It is one of the most old-fashioned books I have ever seen. It is perhaps a final efflorescence of the dull, dignified, self-deceived, hierarchical tradition of republican American politics. It would make a good set of lectures for lower-ranking civil servants; but it is, emphatically, not a book, not a case, and not even amusing

James Alexander on The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and its Critics by Robert Faulkner (20 March 2008)

Michael Burleigh's storytelling shows a perhaps slightly worrying fascination with the technical details of destruction, and a concern for brand identification in the tradition of Ian Fleming

Charles Townshend on Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh ( March 2008)

When Web 2.0 and social networking are mixed into this managerial speak, the result is as excitable as a bag of ferrets, and probably as useful

Tara Brabazon on Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations by Clay Shirky (3 April 2008)

One valuable exhibit is a 'Shakespeare insult kit', two columns of 50 adjectives and one of nouns, giving nearly half a million three-word insults, although since it is often part of the ritual of insult that we speak in our own words, these would be repeated only by fobbing crook-pated clotpoles, or ruttish pottle-deep moldwarps and their ilk

Simon Blackburn on Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults by Jerome Neu (10 April 2008)

David McFarland built a career as an Oxbridge roboticist and biologist, interpreting animals as if they were machines and machines as if they were animals. At times, it seems that he is maintaining the distinction only as a courtesy to the reader, having long since convinced himself that you might as well lump them together and proceed accordingly

Seth Bullock on Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds by David McFarland (24 April 2008)

Thomas White talks about 'humanity's claim to the pinnacle of creation', but no evolutionary biologist has made such a claim since the 19th century. We don't sit at the top of the tree like the Christmas fairy. We're down at the end of one branch. Dolphins are at the end of another - and so are lugworms

Jon Copley on In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier by Thomas I. White (24 April 2008)

Rudi Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York, once said 'always underpromise and overdeliver', and here we have a text that adopts the reverse philosophy

John Whitelegg on Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey Sachs (1 May 2008)

The Enlightenment at least had the satisfaction of rejecting someone else's symbolic mythology, whereas the Romantics had to reject their own

Michael John Kooy on The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol by Nicholas Halmi (1 May 2008)

At times the determined lightheartedness becomes tiresome - as with Simon Goldhill's fixation on bums ... Unfortunately this book falls between stools

Bernard Wasserstein on Jerusalem: History of Longing by Simon Goldhill (8 May 2008)

Amundsen's victory in reaching the South Pole first was generally regarded by the British as unsportsmanlike and, by those who cared about dogs, as unspeakable

David W. H. Walton on Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism by Stephanie Barczewski (8 May 2008)

Many who are worried about climate change see the Earth as fragile, as damaged by human intervention ... But perhaps the Earth is more like an angry beast, which will turn on us suddenly if we keep poking it with sticks

Anthony Giddens on Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change by William H. Calvin (15 May 2008)

Fortunately for Nathan Abrams, Jews can be securely placed as both perverts and pornographers. So too, of course, can Gentiles, but let's stay focused

Lynne Segal on Jews and Sex, edited by Nathan Abrams (15 May 2008)

The Hanoverian Age ... may have been the 'golden age of disrespect', but it was also the golden age of binge drinking, of endemic political corruption and of bare-knuckle prize-fighting, bear-baiting and public executions

Jeffrey Richards on The Disrespect Agenda or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy by Lincoln Allison (15 May 2008)

Raymond Tallis isn't happy with neuroscience and neurophilosophy because - how else to say it? - he finds them too cerebral

Chris McManus on The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey around Your Head by Raymond Tallis (29 May 2008)

Let me explain what academic freedom actually is. It is not a licence to make a fool of oneself, nor does it exonerate herd views

Terence Kealey on Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power and the University by Robert O'Neill (29 May 2008)

All things being equal, the more people the merrier, black, brown or pink. All things aren't equal, of course, and today the misanthropy is cloaked in ecological concern

James J. Hughes on Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population by Matthew Connelly (29 May 2008)

84kg of electronics going 'beep, beep, beep ...' every time it passed overhead at 90-minute intervals caught the powers that be with their metaphorical trousers round their ankles

Colin Pillinger on Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age by W. Patrick McCray (29 May 2008)

Philip Bobbitt eats learned periodicals for breakfast. Turf wars are perhaps the only wars that do not interest him. He tramples the bounds with exquisite courtesy and splendid disregard for pettifogging convention

Alex Danchev on Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century by Philip Bobbitt (12 June 2008)

Can you think of a less engaging subtitle than How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence?

Joanna Bourke on In An Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence by Kristin Bumiller (19 June 2008)

If a dinosaur could have written a book arguing against its extinction, it would have read like this

Peter Stone on Who Owns Antiquity: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage by James Cuno (3 July 2008)

I could have done without the reference to a 'smorgasbord of punitive choices' just after a horrific list of distressing authorised tortures

John Morrill on War in England 1642-1649 by Barbara Donagan (10 July 2008)

I cannot see how it is 'anti-religious bigotry' to say that God's acts cannot be unambiguously verified by public observation, or repeated, or experimentally tested

Keith Ward on Dissent over Dissent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism by Steve Fuller (24 July 2008)

In The Separation of Day and Night, God is 'mooning' at the Pope with his gratuitously exposed divine backside from the Pope's own ceiling. Or did the artist simply enjoy painting naked rumps?

Timothy Mowl on The Sistine Secrets - Unlocking the Codes in Michelangelo's Defiant Masterpiece by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner (7 August 2008)

The rot set in with the sycophantic 20th-century apeing of German stylistic mannerisms, which are about as well suited to academic French as elephants to ice-skating

Roy Harris on Sharing the World by Luce Irigaray (7 August 2008)

When you have been in senior university management as long as I have, forced to read truckloads of circulars from Hefce, UUK and dozens of other acronymed quangos, you have encountered more bullshit than a farmer does in a lifetime, and I embarked on Samuel Culbert's book with the hope that I might be given some useful tips

Susan Bassnett on Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight-Talk at Work by Samuel A. Culbert (14 August 2008)

I had never expected to enjoy a book that delved so deeply into the writing of software licences - reading them is hard enough

John Gilbey on Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelly (21 August 2008)

This is an unusual book, and much of it is intensely annoying: in particular, the exclusive focus on America, and the heavy writing style - the text is full of 'quintessential binaries', whatever they are

Raphael Salkie on Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play by Jennifer DeVere Brody (28 August 2008)

Like having a cheery, knowledgeable mentor on hand whose occasional descents into mild condescension are more than compensated for by his wisdom

Greg Garrard on On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching by James M. Lang (4 September 2008)

Rather than a figure of psychosexual threat, Indira Ghose's Bottom is actually 'every woman's dream': amiable, undemanding and, well, hung like a donkey

Greg Walker on Shakespeare and Laughter: A Cultural History by Indira Ghose (18 September 2008)

These are subversive questions. But (after all) subversive questions are the only ones worth asking

Geoffrey Alderman on Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education edited by Lester H. Hunt (18 September 2008)

Academics of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your footnotes

Ron Johnson on Documentation: A History and Critique of Attribution, Notes, Bibliographies, Works-Cited Lists, and Citation Indexing and Analysis by Robert Hauptman (18 September 2008)

Preparing his abortive I, Claudius, Josef von Sternberg was advised the Vestal Virgins were invariably six in number and modestly attired. 'I want 60 and I want them naked!' Sternberg retorted

Philip Kemp on Hollywood's Ancient Worlds by Jeffrey Richards (25 September 2008)

How to be a happy heretic? ... Karl Marx, in his theories of economic determinism, would have answered the question simply: money

Terence Kealey on Rebels, Mavericks and Heretics in Biology, edited by Owen Harman and Michael R. Dietrich (2 October 2008)

There is an irreverent description of Socrates as pot-bellied and ugly, but no sense of why meeting him made Athenians so upset

Simon Goldhill on Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day by Philip Matyszak (23 October 2008)

Jerome H. Lemolson, America's most prolific inventor since Edison ... was unknown to me, but that was my loss. Anyone who meets his future wife on the Staten Island Ferry is a friend of mine

Anthony Sutcliffe on Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the 20th Century by Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella (23 October 2008)

Readers will, and should, be inclined to take Rowan Williams seriously. After all, he is the Archbishop of Canterbury

Robin Feuer Miller on Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction by Rowan Williams (13 November 2008)

Brian Rotman engages with the English sentence like a man locked in gladiatorial combat with a more powerful adversary, but vowing not to go under without putting up a brave fight. His education must have missed the lesson on the full stop

Roy Harris on Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts and Distributed Human Being by Brian Rotman (20 November 2008)

Only the weary explorer first lighting upon the mysterious shores of Easter Island has encountered more stone-faced indifference than the unfortunates compelled to teach Social Research Methods 101

Leslie Gofton on Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in the Age of Info-Glut by Kristin Luker ( November 2008)

Nanovision could be an account of the exciting potential developments and applications of nanotechnology, such as drug delivery or quantum computing. Instead we are offered a barrage of neonanologisms: nanogoo, nanofuture, nanobacteria, nanodiscourse, nanorhetoric ... All that is missing is a nanoindex

Andrew Briggs on Nanovision: Engineering the Future by Colin Milburn (11 December 2008).

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