Turn over a new leaf

The life and legacy of Darwin dominates the new year roster of academic titles of note, but there are many other works of intellectual substance promised between January and June

January 1, 2009

On a landmark birthday, what do you give the scholar who has everything? The same as every year, surely: books. And Charles Darwin, who celebrates the big 2-0-0 this year, can expect nothing less than a flood of volumes and a flotilla of Festschriften in his honour.

Despite being research-inactive for the past 1 years, the naturalist will be ubiquitous on bookshelves in the first half of 2009, from reprints of his works (On the Origin of Species celebrates its own sesquicentennial) to a masterfully concise restating of his big idea by Jerry A. Coyne in Why Evolution Is True (Oxford University Press, January). Sure to take the lion's share of Darwin anniversary attention, however, is the weightily uplifting Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Allen Lane, January), in which Adrian Desmond and James Moore (who both have admirable form on the subject) cite, contextualise and wholeheartedly celebrate Darwin's abolitionist "moral core".

However, if provocation is more to your taste, the highlight of Darwin Year 2009 may be the cleverly framed polemic of Fern Elsdon Baker's The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy (Icon, May). Snapping at the heels of the man known as Darwin's rottweiler and taking him to task for self-promotional tendencies is not a job for the faint of heart, but as a spectator sport it promises to be unmissable.

Offering evidence for the provocative theory that the evolution of British science did not end with Darwin, Faber starts 2009 with Graham Farmelo's triumphant The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, the first full biography of the Bristol-born Nobel laureate. Exhaustively researched and written with the watchful sympathy of a novelist, it is a book that some colleagues of the famously reticent physicist thought would be impossible to write. Along the way, as Farmelo considers what it means to be human through the prism of a man many considered a closed book, quantum physics plays charismatic second lead.

Still in matters scientific, Patricia Fara boldly takes the long view with Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford University Press, March) and, in the process, aims to unpick the tangle of political and economic influences on the quest for knowledge. She makes an elegantly assertive bid to throw out notions of scientific supremacy and the scientist-as-hero. Expect a few ruffled lab coats.

In the meantime, Don, Angela and Anthony Mak make a stout defence of science's quotidian utility, tackling everything from bank accounts to housework with Solving Everyday Problems with the Scientific Method: Thinking Like a Scientist (World Scientific Press, January). And in the small-things-amuse-big-minds department, Christian Joachim and his collaborators snaffle another in-hindsight-inevitable title for their Nanosciences: The Invisible Revolution (World Scientific Press, May).

Known knowns, unknown knowns and nonsense: what better time than the post-Bush era to shine a light on the murky world of the unabashedly made-up? Ronald H. Fritze brings a seriously large torch on his journey through spurious narrative, conspiracy theories and bestselling twaddle in a veritable encyclopaedia of folly, Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-Religions (Reaktion, March). Read it and giggle. Or weep.

Shifting to the known unknowns, Michael Brooks' sparklingly written 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time (Profile, February) at last makes its British appearance after last year's well-received US publication. Brooks' enthusiasm is infectious as he makes a compelling case for the future scientific discoveries lying hidden in some of the most stubborn gaps in our knowledge, including cold fusion, signals from outer space, black holes, homoeopathy and the placebo effect. The sole disappointment comes in his discussion of the missing 96 per cent of the Universe, where he fails to consider the role of the Royal Mail. And your desk.

Some books cry out to be read by the self-styled democratic leaders least likely to touch them with a bargepole. One such is Seth C. Kalichman's passionately appalled Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Human Tragedy (Springer, February). A few months later, if you find James Lovelock's Gaia theory insufficiently apocalyptic, Peter Ward will arrive to put a deadlier twist in the tale with The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Princeton University Press, May). Assuming the answer is not an immediate "yes", you will have time to consider Ioan James' Remarkable Biologists: From Ray to Hamilton (Cambridge University Press, June). Remarkability is a matter of opinion, but James makes some interesting choices. And in confining our birthday boy, Charles D., to a mere chapter, he finds room for Audubon, two Hookers, Beatrix Potter and Emperor Hirohito.

The annual brought-swiftly-to-book sweepstakes sees the publishing industry showing great ingenuity in locating extant scholarship on the American President-elect. While it is hard to shake the suspicion that the initial wave of titles will be less remarkable for their scope than their alacrity, inveterate politics-watchers may be tempted by The Perils of Obamamania by Adolph Reed (Verso, April), if only to observe the readying of the I-told-you-so hymn sheet. Unfortunately, Obama's role in crop failure, cows' refusal to give milk and plagues of frogs is not mentioned. Try Barack Obama: Leading the US in a Post-American World by Carl Pedersen (Edinburgh University Press, April) for a Danish, and less Cassandra-like, perspective.

One of academic publishing's great constants is the sheer volume of history titles, and the first half of 2009 is no exception. If you have ever wondered what, exactly, they are for, hold that thought until April, when acclaimed Canadian scholar Margaret Macmillan makes a spirited and wide-ranging defence of her discipline in a world of spin and dodgy dossiers in The Uses and Abuses of History (Verso). After that, everything else may be a mere footnote, although it is hard not to be tempted by Norman Rose's A Senseless, Squalid War: Voices from Palestine 1945-1948 (Jonathan Cape, March); Simon Dixon's Catherine the Great (Verso, March); Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution by Helen Yaffe (Palgrave, March); and Angela V. John's portrait of Evelyn Sharp: Rebel Woman, 1869-1955 (Manchester University Press, March). On the seemingly inexhaustible Second World War front, expect plenty of plaudits for William Hitchcock's Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1944-1945 (Faber and Faber, January).

In a financially chilly world, the rising tide of books aiming to offer authoritative academic analysis of matters economic looks either reassuring or frankly hilarious, depending on your temperament. Certainly, the title of George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller's Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (Princeton University Press, March) whiffs gratifyingly of voodoo economics despite the fact that it was John Maynard Keynes (who knew a thing or two about depressions) who came up with the phrase used in the title.

Perhaps inevitably, it is Pluto Press' list that wins hands down on brutally unsweetened titles that put the dismal back into the dismal science. These include Sarah Bracking's Money and Power: Great Predators in the Political Economy of Development (May) and Warwick Funnell, Robert Jupe and Jane Andrew's In Government We Trust: Market Failure and the Delusions of Privatisation (January). Don't expect many laughs. Palgrave Macmillan looms into apocalyptic view with The Spectre at the Feast: Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession by Andrew Gamble (May, assuming that currency, bookshops and regular meals are all still around by then). Or you could put things into perspective with Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven (Princeton University Press, June).

In matters philosophical, two of the most interesting offerings in early 2009 - at least for loosely defined Stoics - will be found striking a reflective pose on the edge of this mortal coil. In Living up to Death (University of Chicago Press, April), a selection of the final writings by the late Paul Ricoeur summons the consolations of philosophy to look failing health, loss of a loved one and one's own mortality in the eye. Robin Waterfield, meanwhile, unpicks another philosopher's untimely end in a clear and conversational Why Socrates Died: Athens on Trial (Faber, March).

By way of compensation, perhaps, Roger Scruton takes us on a hunt for Beauty via birdsong and the Turner Prize (Oxford University Press, March). Another philosopher gains the spotlight, only to be obliged to share it, but at least he is in noble and talented company in Paul Strathern's The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior (Jonathan Cape, February). Here we find Machiavelli with pals Cesare Borgia and Leonardo da Vinci prowling the chiaroscuro back alleys of the Renaissance like hustlers and spivs.

Architecture's latest state-of-the-discipline think-piece is Jeremy Till's Architecture Depends (MIT Press, March), which cites Laurie Anderson and Elvis Costello in musing, with refreshing good sense, on the inherent messiness of the world. Meanwhile, it is hard not to imagine that J. K. Birksted's look at Masonic links in Le Corbusier and the Occult (MIT Press, February) will be greeted by a host of knowing smiles from anti-modernists. Mind you, there won't be nearly enough Satan in it for their liking.

Although it is hard to believe that recent years' parade of books with titles hanging balefully on the words "terror" and "jihad" has abated entirely, unquestionably the most eagerly anticipated of new works on Islam and the Muslim world comes from Tariq Ramadan. And in an age when the words "essential" and "unmissable" have been devalued to television-schedule scale, Ramadan's Radical Reform (Oxford University Press, January) promises to be a landmark work of scholarship: essential, unmissable and full of hope.

Finally, the largely lucidly written Intellectuals and their Publics: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, edited by Christian Fleck, Andreas Hess and E. Stina Lyon (Ashgate, January), promises a ringingly affirmative reply to the question, "Is anyone out there listening?" Even if, in celebrating the academy's mouthy, dissident, frank and frankly fearless members, the contributors offer a sobering reminder that some of those listening most intently to academics' views have been the people with guns, grudges, gulags and an extremely dim view of intellectual freedom. This edited volume is out today, and there may be no more loin-girding way to start the year.

A more extensive list of key academic titles for the first half of 2009, listed by publisher, is available at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk.

Karen Shook and Sarah Cunnane

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