What are you reading? – 3 August 2017

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

August 3, 2017
Standing on a pile of books
Source: Alamy

Richard Joyner, emeritus professor of chemistry, Nottingham Trent University, is reading Yanis Varoufakis’s Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (Bodley Head). “Varoufakis was Greece’s finance minister from January to July 2015. An academic economist recruited to politics, he strove mightily to provide a rational way forward for his debt-stricken country. He was constantly frustrated by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and countless European Union functionaries, as well as increasingly by his colleagues in the Syriza government of Alexis Tsipras. Varoufakis’ unrecognised Achilles heel, however, is the assumption beloved of many academics – all that is needed for victory is to have the best, most logical argument. Would that politics were like that! He should perhaps have read Francis Cornford’s Micro­cosmographica Academica. Varoufakis’ book, however, should be required reading for anyone who believes that a Brexit outcome satisfactory to the UK is likely.”

Emma Rees, professor of literature and gender studies, University of Chester, is reading Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press). “This is not a beach book. It’s a dense and unapologetically academic book, and it’s all the better for that. This study of the ‘unsentimentality’ of six writers and artists – Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag and Simone Weil – is an important text that looks at ‘toughness’ as a psychological, philosophical and political stance. In exploring her subjects’ shared ‘aesthetic practice for facing painful reality’, Nelson manages elegantly to generate ‘a space for coldness and heartlessness, reserve and containment’, staking out ‘a border territory of affect studies’. It’s worth reading for the chapter on the photographer Diane Arbus alone – of the six figures, she was the only one who could pass my ‘Would I have been OK stuck in a lift with this person?’ test.”

Richard J. Williams, professor of contemporary visual cultures, University of Edinburgh, is reading Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (William Collins). “I like cephalopods, and this is one of the best books about them that I have read. The author’s main question is the nature of their intelligence. In captivity, octopuses behave with wit and mischief. In the wild, cuttlefish seem to display their inner thoughts on their bodies. The octopuses the author studied in Australia were undersea architects, responsible for a metropolis made of clam shells. Their sophistication is amazing, yet they only live a year or so. These and other stories serve a bigger argument about the development of intelligent life on earth, and the tantalising suggestion that intelligence has developed twice – or more – in parallel but unrelated experiments. What does it feel like to be an octopus? The author has something to say about that too. A profound, mysterious, moving book.”

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