Iced Bellini and a dip into the Apocrypha

July 9, 2004

What is on academics' summer reading lists? Mandy Garner finds passions for anything from Joyce to Just William.

You might think that academics would like to get away from it all on holiday and chill out with a Jackie Collins - as historian Richard Evans says, "a holiday is a holiday, not a relocation of work to a warmer clime" - but many will weigh down their suitcases with intellectual tomes this summer. Although some would rather read anything but their own subject - Vernon Bogdanor's list is politics-free - others will be catching up on research reading: moral philosopher Bob Brecher's list includes a PhD thesis on feminist metaphysics.

Many, though, have offered wish lists rather than what they think they might actually read. This is mainly because the days of long summer vacations sipping Chianti are over. Academics face year-round deadlines for administrative duties, teaching and research: economist Andrew Oswald says his only summer plans are to catch up on back issues of The Economist . But his Warwick University colleague Susan Bassnett is relishing the summer, listing a clutch of novels, the Bible, a travel book and the odd bit of poetry. She paints an idyllic picture: "Out in a deckchair, with a large iced Bellini, I shall dip into the Oxford Book of Garden Verse ."

For some, writing a summer reading list is hard work in its own right. They fear the judgement of their peers if they simply name the latest bonkbuster. Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, admits: "I always feel inadequate when compared with the class swots who read English literature and come up with phrases like 'I shall be reading Tractatus in the original German, so much more enlighteningI' Why do we let these people look down on us techies with a scientific bent to whom reading doesn't come naturally?" His list includes an aircraft construction manual. And he might reread Machiavelli's The Prince , "particularly the chapters on governing principalities... An early meeting with the deans in September means that I must learn new tricks," he says, "I hope they don't read it first. If I get the only copy out of the library, that should slow them down a bit."

Ian Kershaw
Professor of history
Sheffield University

"I struggle to find time to read books that are not of relevance to my work. On holiday, I usually have a mammoth typescript from some publisher or other that I have had to lug from home to get through by the pool or during a beautiful summer's evening, sitting on a balcony with a glass of wine, attracting despairing irritation from my wife and wishing I hadn't been so daft as to commit myself to commenting on it. As relaxation, I often go back to the classics - Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Henry James or Thomas Mann. But I also like biographies of political figures, and I'll probably turn to Anthony Seldon's new biography of Tony Blair. Beyond that, and bearing in mind that I am always unrealistic in what I can manage, I hope to read Richard Overy's The Dictators and David Cesarani's Eichmann: His Life, Crimes and Legacy - both for review; Harold James's Europe Reborn: A History, 1914-2000 - an intriguingly optimistic analysis of 20th-century Europe; Joseph Bergin, Crown, Church and Episcopate under Louis XIV - given to me by the author, a good friend and outstanding authority on 17th-century France; Diarmaid MacCulloch's Reformation - I have never lost my fascination, since schooldays, for 16th-century religious history; Benjamin Zachariah's Nehru ; George L. Bernstein's The Myth of Decline ; and Timothy Garton Ash's Free World , which, from the extracts I have read, seems one of the most thoughtful assessments of the case for Britain to be fully engaged in Europe."

Gary Day
Principal lecturer in English
De Montfort University

"The only books I ever finish reading are those I have to teach. The books I will probably start but not finish this summer include: Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything , because I don't know anything; Howard Jacobson's The Making of Henry , because he is one of the few genuinely funny contemporary novelists; Julie Myerson's Something Might Happen , because the very title reassures me that there is still time for something to happen in my life; Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran , because it is about the indispensability of literature, and Manda Scott's Boudica , because it shows a Britain without any bureaucracy."

Alan Macfarlane
Professor of anthropological science
Cambridge University

"Sofka Zinovieff's Eurydice Street - partly because Sofka was my PhD student, but then I find it an absolutely delightful and insightful book in the great tradition of travel-anthropology. Anyone attending the Athens Olympics (and many others) should read it. Jack Goody's Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate , because it addresses one of the great questions in history - how the modern world emerged - and does so from the wealth of experience and reading of a fascinating and prolific comparative thinker. Isabella Bird's The Yangtze Valley and Beyond , originally published in 1899, my third reading of this wonderful book, particularly worth while as I hope to pay my first visit to Szechuan in September."

Vernon Bogdanor
Professor of government
Oxford University

"I shall be going to Bayreuth to hear Wagner's Ring for the first time. The operas will make sense only if one does one's homework first. I Saw the World End , by the late lamented Deryck Cooke, is essential preparation. Cooke had an understanding of the myriad leitmotives of the complex score, which will never be rivalled. I may also reread Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite , which yields a Marxist interpretation of the operas - perverse but, as always with Shaw, illuminating. I shall try to reread Anthony Powell's series A Dance to the Music of Time , to my mind the most impressive set of English novels since the war, illuminated by the conflict between two ways of life - the life of the will (Widmerpool), and the life of the aesthete (Jenkins, the narrator). Finally, I shall try to read an author whom Powell disliked, Anthony Trollope. A few years ago, I joined the Trollope Society and found unexpected riches in the complete works."

Brian Heap
Master of St Edmund's College, Cambridge

"Edward Rutherfurd's Sarum . I have become hooked on Rutherfurd's magnificent historical fiction, and this vast book is based on 100 centuries of British turmoil, tyranny, passion and poverty. Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich's One with Nineveh , to catch up on overpopulation, overconsumption and the politics and economics of inequity, especially with elections looming on both sides of the Atlantic. Emmanuel Todd's After the Empire , for the intriguing subtitle, The Breakdown of the American Order , and for the flier that claims this is a powerful antidote to the hysterical exaggeration of American power."

Richard Evans
Professor of modern history

"I'll leave behind my history books, as well as my laptop and my mobile phone, and do my best to stay completely out of touch with the rest of the world. I'll give my mind a rest as well, so nothing that's too demanding. I'll be taking Alexander McCall Smith's The Kalahari Typing School for Men , the next one for me to read in his brilliantly entertaining series of Botswanan detective novels. I've just read the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , given to me by a friend, and found it so mesmerising that I'll be taking the novel that made his reputation - Norwegian Wood . As a historian I've always been fascinated by forgeries, so I'll pack Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake ."

Bob Brecher
Reader in moral philosophy
Brighton University

"There's the usual intimidating pile of books to be read to help me with the one I'm writing, in the hope that it might eventually take its place in someone else's pile... Some books to reread: Jean Rhys's early novels: Voyage in the Dark, Quartet, Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie . Her spare, sculptural prose gives an insight at once into people's lives and into how language works to make such insight possible. W. G. Sebald's two books of poems: After Nature and For Years Now . Will his poetry be more poetic than his amazing prose? And will the German originals feel more like translations of the English after reading his novels in English? Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk , for the sheer pleasure of the scatological language and the untranslatable jokes and the masochistic pleasure of trying yet again to decide whether Svejk is an antihero or a collaborator hiding behind humour. Some I've been looking forward to reading: Carol Jones's PhD thesis, "Women of Reason: Prolegomenon to a Future Feminist Metaphysics". It's been on my shelf for two years, and I need to give it the time it deserves - a thinker whose work never fails to excite. Dante's Inferno - to my shame, I've never read it; about time I did."

Tom Palaima
Professor of classics
University of Texas at Austin

"James Collins and Richard K. Blot, L iteracy and Literacies: Texts, Power and Identity , to get fuller perspectives on the ways written communication is used within societies and to grasp what is at work with the plural literacies recognised by new literacy studies. I hope this will give me new ways of thinking about the early stages of Greek writing. Steven Dudley's Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia . Dudley promises to reveal why people risk and lose their lives for ideals, why superpowers act counter to their own value systems to support murderous regimes and criminal elements in other countries, and how nearly impossible 'peaceful solutions' are to the major conflicts between and within states in our time. Cecil Brown's Stagolee Shot Billy , to unravel how an event in 1895 St Louis gave rise to an early song whose themes and counterculture hero were then mythologised in folk and blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop, and transformed by great artists in each genre. I use such modern traditions in explaining Homeric tradition to students."

Susan Bassnett
Professor, Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies
Warwick University

"In this Bloomsday centenary year, I shall be rereading James Joyce's Ulysses , which I haven't opened for some 20 years. I shall also continue reading the Authorised Version of the Bible, including the Apocrypha, from end to end. I have been saving as a special treat Jan Morris' book on one my favourite cities, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere , along with two novels I know won't disappoint: Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise , translated by Natasha Wimmer, and Kamila Shamsie's Kartography ."

Tim Birkhead
Professor of behavioural ecology

I'm reading Jim Watson's DNA: The Secret of Life - it has had great reviews and who better to tell the story of DNA? I have a copy of Don Quixote that I will read while on holiday in Spain - it seems appropriate."

Gill Evans
Professor of history, Cambridge

"Every week or two I go to the top floor of Blackwells, where the academics of Oxford sell their favourite novels and buy a new armful. There you may find something by almost any novelist, some a little the worse for wear from having been dropped into the bath or out of a bicycle basket. At the moment, piles are stacked as usual on my stairs - Alison Lurie and Iris Murdoch for rereading; Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle wears well. For deep vacation recreation, you really can't beat Just William or Dick Francis (he would have survived well in academic warfare by being able to plan coolly on very little sleep, with three broken ribs)."

Steven Rose
Chair of biology
Open University

"I'm badly behind in my reading but, unless I get other books to review over the summer, I will be taking a batch of back numbers of Nature and Science , some of Humberto Maturana's essays in preparation for a discussion with him in September, along with an edited collection on self-organisation in biological systems, which I've been meaning to get to grips with for a long time now, and Maria Lisboa's Paula Rego's Map of Memory - I am a devoted fan of Rego. Sean McMeekin's biography of Willy Münzenberg, The Red Millionaire , and Charles King's The Black Sea: A History ."

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