What are you reading?

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

September 29, 2011

Laurence Coupe, senior lecturer in English, Manchester Metropolitan University, is reading Faye Hammill's Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2010). "From Jane Austen to Sofia Coppola, Hammill traces the shifting meanings of an elusive quality. I've been impressed by her astute discussion of the paradoxes involved in the attempt to live artfully, not least the way artifice implies authenticity and vice versa. Relating her theme to topics as various as sensibility, pastoral, nostalgia, decadence, glamour and camp, she has made me realise just what an unsophisticated notion of 'sophistication' I had."

Chris Knight, professor of anthropology at Comenius University, Bratislava, is reading David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011). "Only an anthropologist could have done this. The book blows 'economics' out of the water. Contrary to Adam Smith, money was always state intervention. The earliest coins were for paying mercenaries. Markets were established under armies of occupation. Earth remains under occupation but - Graeber insists - within a generation, Goldman Sachs, Chase Manhattan and the whole brutal system will have gone."

Robert J. Mayhew, professor of historical geography and intellectual history, University of Bristol, is reading James Drake's The Nation's Nature: How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America (University of Virginia Press, 2011). "How did the Founding Fathers reach the point of being able to envisage a nation separate from Britain? Drake's answer is the rise of a 'continental consciousness': North America had distinct attributes that made it different from Europe and therefore suitable for self-governance. Drawing on geography books, travel writing, political pamphlets and images, he makes a strong case - if one that overplays its hand and ignores the more immediate and contingent causes of the American Revolution."

Peter J. Smith, reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University, has just finished reading Susan Hill's Strange Meeting (Hamish Hamilton, 1971). "The title is from Wilfred Owen's meditation on 'the pity war distilled', and Hill's novella evokes the agony and futility of the trenches, intensified by a declaration of love between a war-weary subaltern and a fresh, naive and optimistic recruit. The blending of the interior monologues (in the form of letters written home), straitjacketed conversations and Hill's surgical storytelling is riveting. If you are teaching the First World War or its literature, get your students to start here."

Nigel Rodenhurst, doctoral candidate and tutor in 20th-century British and American literature at Aberystwyth University, is reading Arthur Miller's Timebends: A Life (Grove Press, 1987). "Including Miller's stories of the Depression, the genesis of Death of a Salesman, and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, this weighty volume is a treasure trove of memories. More than a writer's life, this is a story of the 20th century and should appeal to a variety of readers."

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