Best intellectual reads of 2002

January 3, 2003

A dozen of The THES's contributors nominate their favourite books of last year. Helen Davies reports.

Philip Anderson
, Nobel laureate, professor of theoretical physics, Princeton University, US

If I have to pick one book, it has to be Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch's True Genius (Joseph Henry Press), a biography of the double Nobel prizewinner in physics John Bardeen, one of the inventors of the transistor. At times it might be a little pedestrian, perhaps because this matches the character of its subject, but it is a book that brings out a person and a personal achievement that most intellectuals know little about. The joke has always been: John who?

Peter Atkins
, professor of chemistry, University of Oxford

I greatly enjoyed Oxygen by Andrew Miller (Sceptre). It was a jolly good read. It shows the origins of the atmosphere, and therefore of life. It is written with verve and a desire to entertain. It puts forward new and interesting arguments, giving a novel vision of the atmosphere.

• Also admired: Lisa Jardine's On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren (HarperCollins) and Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (HarperCollins).

Nigel Barley
, assistant keeper of ethnography, British Museum

Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta , edited by Martha G. Anderson and Philip M. Peek (Fowler Museum of the University of California at Los Angeles), is an exhibition catalogue. Alas, I've not yet seen the exhibition. The editors have rounded up all the best scholars who've worked on and in the Niger Delta and engaged full-on with the awkward big questions that usually you just skirt around. They deal with art and identity, styles and the influence of trade, history and environment. It's readable, beautiful and full of insight.

• Also admired: Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Viking) and Pascal Khoo Thwe's From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey (HarperCollins).

Terry Eagleton
, professor of cultural theory, University of Manchester

Bernard Williams' Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton University Press) is basically a subtle argument against postmodernist scepticism that reaffirms the value of truth but not in a dogmatic way. It is elegantly written but is also humane and capacious. Though in some ways continuous with his other works, it has a new urgency that is an important, timely intervention.

• Also admired: two classical European novels newly translated into English, Embers by Sandor Marai (Viking) and Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderburg (Harvill).

Susan Greenfield
, director, Royal Institution

Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler: A German Youth 1914-33 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), a diary of the author's upbringing in Germany, was written in 1937-38 after he got out of Germany, just before the second world war. I have never read anything like it: a book against Hitler but written without hindsight. The diaries are well written, but it was the subject matter that really made me think. The book's central thesis about why Hitler gained purchase on German society is that after the war the nation lived in public - it became obsessed with the collective values of sport - and the Nazis provided a public narrative. It is a chilling book, not just as history but in relation to how society today likes to live in public.

• Also admired: Consciousness and the Novel by David Lodge (Secker and Warburg).

Richard Harries
, bishop of Oxford

For a read that is at once intellectual and accessible, I recommend John Bowker's God: A Brief History (Dorling Kindersley). He touches on all world faiths setting them out in a way that combines beliefs, major figures and history. There are two good chapters on the death of God. William Trevor's haunting The Story of Lucy Gault (Viking), which should have won the Booker Prize, had the greatest emotional impact on me this year.

• Also admired: Keith Ward's God: A Guide for the Perplexed (Oneworld) and Rowan Williams' Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (Darton, Longman and Todd).

Patrick Moore
, author of more than 60 books, mainly on astronomy

I wrote the preface for it. It is a poem called Eureka by Edgar Allan Poe (Hesperus). Poe was rather a good cosmologist and way ahead of his time. Eureka had lots of compelling ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

• Also admired: Martin Rees' Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (Free Press) and Martin Gorst's Aeons: The Search for the Beginning of Time (Fourth Estate).

Steven Rose
, director of the brain and behaviour research group, Open University

Stan Cohen's States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Polity), which has just won the British Academy book prize, is a powerful and painfully honest analysis of how it can be that participants and bystanders in atrocities - from the concentration camps through South Africa to former Yugoslavia and Israel/Palestine - are able to deny the evidence of their own eyes and actions. Cohen draws on sociology, psychology, political theory and philosophy to explain such denials. He breaks new ground and opens a desperately important field to academic examination. An essential read if intellectuals are to avoid the trahison des clercs.

• Also admired: Yadin Dudai's Memory from A to Z: Keywords, Concepts, and Beyond (Oxford University Press) and Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press).

Alan Ryan
, warden of New College, Oxford, currently on sabbatical in California

One of the two most interesting books I read in 2002 was one I reviewed quite sharply: Sheldon Wolin's Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton University Press). It is awkwardly constructed, omits a great deal and relies on the reader to share the author's detestation of modern liberal politics, but it is written with a passion that is rare in recent political theory. Only the most obdurately complacent could dismiss Wolin's haunting view of what he calls "fugitive democracy".

• Also admired: Bernard Williams' Truth and Truthfulness , Margaret Macmillan's T he Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and its Attempt to End the War (John Murray) and Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives (Macmillan).

Brendan Simms
, historian and fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge

The most stimulating book I read in 2002 was Tim Blanning's The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe 1660-1789 (Oxford University Press). Consciously aiming at a broad audience, the author conducts a comparative study of the development of political culture in Europe in this period. He argues not only with erudition but also with panache and humour. His findings are highly relevant to cultural historians and those who still cleave to Jurgen Habermas' notion of a purely bourgeois "public sphere". But they are also a challenge to historians such as myself who openly subscribe to the "primacy of foreign policy". Blanning's argument is that the root of British and Prussian military success - and the failure of the French ancien régime - lay in their success in adapting their political cultures.

• Also admired: Jonathan Haslam's No Virtue like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations since Machiavelli (Yale University Press) and Eric Hobsbawm's Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (Allen Lane The Penguin Press).

Laurie Taylor
, fellow of Birkbeck College, London

Post-devolution Britain has spawned a number of books on what it is to be English. But these have often lacked any sustained attempt to show how English people were affected by their historical role as colonisers and how they were, in turn, affected by those they colonised. This double failure has been magnificently corrected by Catherine Hall's monumental social history of 19th-century Englishness, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867 (Polity). This is a deeply felt and profoundly analytical account of how we tried to turn those whom we colonised into people like ourselves and our complex and often disturbing reaction to their refusal to accept any such identity.

• Also admired: Alison Wolf's Does Education Matter? (Penguin) and Christopher Hitchens' Orwell's Victory (Allen Lane The Penguin Press).

Mary Warnock
, formerly mistress of Girton College, Cambridge

My choice would have to be Keith Ward's God: A Guide for the Perplexed . It's a sort of historical survey of ideas on God. If I had to teach a class of unruly irreligious teenagers, this is what I would use because it is funny and clever. He starts with the Greek gods and moves on to Christianity, while also looking at other faiths. It is conscientious and often moving.

• Also admired: Bernard Williams' Truth and Truthfulness , and Onora O'Neill's A Question of Trust: The BBC Reith Lectures 2002 and her Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics (both Cambridge University Press).

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