New and noteworthy – 11 January 2018

A whirlwind tour of universities, a timely survey of Iran’s past, an intriguing nose-around the Byzantine Empire, and a fascinating study of revolution in Egypt

January 11, 2018
University of Glasgow - most beautiful universities in the UK

Universities and Colleges: A Very Short Introduction
David Palfreyman and Paul Temple
Oxford University Press

Unlike agnosticism, anxiety and many of the other topics to which OUP has devoted “very short introductions”, the meaning of the university might seem uncontentious. Yet even if, as the authors point out, “universities…in something vaguely resembling their present form” have been around in Europe for 900 years, we now often want them to be “simultaneously traditional yet innovative; elite yet open; competitive yet collegial; international yet local”. By looking at all the competing strands that shape institutions – “historical, international, functional, financial, sociological, political, economic” – the book provides a rich and nuanced picture of a very varied scene.

Iran: A Modern History
Abbas Amanat
Yale University Press

In this monumental work, which took him almost two decades, Abbas Amanat tells the story of Iran from the creation of the Safavid Empire in 1501 to the revolution of 1979, “a complex period that witnessed five dynastic changes, at least three revolutions, three civil wars, four episodes of foreign occupation, and the inception of a new Islamic government”. Yet given that the country was highly unusual in “preserv[ing] its sovereignty and much of its territorial integrity in the age of high imperialism”, there is also a powerful element of continuity. The result is an incisive analysis of “the roots of Iranian modernity, or more accurately, modernities, over a half millennium”.

Sophie Scholl and the White Rose
Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn

In 1942, five students and a professor based at the University of Munich launched a leaflet and graffiti campaign that became what Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn describe as “the first fully fledged public protest by Germans against Nazism”. Seventy-five years ago next month, several were arrested, put on trial and executed. When the authors began to research this inspiring story in Germany in the 1980s, they were met with “silence and bristling resentment”. Since then, the heroes of the White Rose have been celebrated in films, memorials and even a prize for humanitarian literature. This new edition of Dumbach and Newborn’s original book is published to mark the anniversary.

A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from History’s Most Orthodox Empire
Anthony Kaldellis
Oxford University Press

Enlightenment thinkers, writes Anthony Kaldellis, despised the Byzantine Empire as “theocratic, superstitious, and run by eunuchs and evil monks”. Yet students at his Midwestern university “enrol by the hundreds in introductory survey courses of its history” (despite failing a rather obvious test to name a Byzantine emperor between Constantine I and Constantine XI). This entertaining anthology takes in saints and scandals, marriage and medicine, technology, punishments and inventive insults. Although some of it undoubtedly makes the Byzantines seem “weird and alien”, Kaldellis also includes much material designed to “highlight their down-to-earth, pragmatic, inventive, and rational sides”.

Making Revolution in Egypt: The April 6 Youth Movement in a Global Context
Ali Sonay
I. B. Tauris

Founded as a Facebook page in 2008, the April 6 Youth Movement was central to the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the fall of Hosni Mubarak and long-awaited political change in Egypt. Although the Arab Spring led to what some have called an “Arab Winter” – Ali Sonay admits that “Egypt’s path toward democratic government holds little promise for the near future” – the movement remains fascinating both in its own right and in the context of wider global protest. This new account, drawing on “40 semi-structured interviews with activists, scientists and journalists”, explores its origins, organisational structures, mobilisation strategies and inventive uses of social media.

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