What are you reading? – 12 July 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

July 12, 2018

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor, University of Reading, is reading Taylor Downing’s 1983: The World at the Brink (Bloomsbury, 2018). “Could the world have been obliterated by accident? Yes, according to Downing. 1983 describes how, in the autumn of that year, an early warning system failure and then a Nato war game – Able Archer 83 – almost provoked a full-scale nuclear response from the Soviet Union. More assertive rhetoric from US President Ronald Reagan led the increasingly paranoid Kremlin to believe that a pre-emptive first strike from the US was a distinct possibility. Only cool-headed responses from military officers on both sides prevented potentially catastrophic escalation. Not for the first (and certainly not for the last) time, intelligence failures contributed to heightened tension. But it was a seminal moment as both sides then sought to understand better each other’s intentions.”


Eliane Glaser, senior lecturer in English and creative writing at Bath Spa University, is reading Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism (Verso, 2018). “There’s a paradox at the heart of our ‘populist moment’: on the one hand, it represents the ‘return of the political’ after decades of post-politics. But on the other, populism is an anti-political force, directing its angry energy against the political establishment. For Mouffe, ‘left populism’ – the positing of a political ‘frontier’ between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy’ – is a ‘discursive strategy’ designed to reanimate our moribund political culture. My own recent book, Anti‑Politics: On the Demonization of Ideology, Authority and the State, criticises populism for downplaying ideological divisions within ‘the people’. Mouffe agrees that a productive antagonism between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is central to a healthy democracy. I look forward to discovering, therefore, why she calls for a left populism, rather than a popular left.”


Sir John Holman, emeritus professor of chemistry, University of York, is reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2017) “Douglass was a slave in Maryland who taught himself to write by copying the letters on the crates he was made to carry. He eventually escaped to the North, where in 1845 he wrote his narrative and soon became a celebrity speaker among abolitionists. As an American slave, you are utterly in the hands of your master: cruel, kind or indifferent. Slaves are kept subservient through violence, drink and ignorance in a system as carefully planned as animal husbandry. I gather this book is standard reading in many American high schools, and I should have read it myself long ago: the achievement is astonishing, as is the life of the writer who risked so much for the cause of abolition.”

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