Minister for learning, science and Scotland’s languages, Scotland
For pleasure: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism (Pan) by Adam Hochschild. Pleasure is perhaps not the right word, but this is an eye-opening and sobering account of a forgotten piece of history – what happened in the Belgian Congo a hundred years ago to hundreds of thousands of Africans forced to labour in European rubber plantations. For work: Complete Norwegian: Teach Yourself (Hodder Education) by Margaretha Danbolt Simons. I have been meaning to do this for a long time, as I am a bit of a fan of Norway. I have not, in honesty, mastered much of the language, but I can now sing the Norwegian national anthem.
Minister for employment and learning, Northern Ireland
With a PhD in international relations, I retain a lively interest in foreign policy. The related need to invest in sound domestic economic policy interventions is vital to all societies. Richard N. Haass’ Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order (Perseus) ticks a lot of boxes. (Haass is also chairing inter-party talks relating to the Northern Ireland peace process.) Although Woodrow Wilson was one of the most transformative US presidents, he has of late been relatively less studied than some of his equally significant predecessors. On the centenary of the start of his presidency, A. Scott Berg in Wilson (Simon & Schuster) considers his mix of progressive and reactionary tendencies.
Vice-chancellor, University of Huddersfield, Times Higher Education Awards University of the Year 2013
The ex-umpire Dickie Bird fits the stereotype marked “professional Yorkshireman”. In his 80 Not Out: My Favourite Cricket Memories (Hodder & Stoughton), the cricket fixation is genuine, but far from being a dour tyke, Bird is emotionally honest, generous-spirited and good-humoured. These qualities come out when you meet him and when you read this entertaining volume of autobiography and cricketing anecdotes. Having used Thomas L. Floyd’s Digital Fundamentals: A Systems Approach (Pearson Education) when I first started teaching, I picked up this new 10th edition out of curiosity. Generations of electrical engineering students have considered it the bible of digital electronics, and it’s a “must buy”. Floyd’s emphasis on applications using real devices is a winner.
General secretary, University and College Union
Location, location, location: your home, your school and your university can and do dictate your life chances. I’d recommend the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report State of the Nation 2013: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain to everyone. Its sheer weight of depressive detail makes for compelling reading. It’s left me thinking hard about how we seem never to really alter the life chances of the many: despite tinkering with policies and headline-grabbing initiatives, still we live in a society driven by class, not talent. The chapter on entering the professions confirms that the hierarchy in university degrees is alive and kicking. Are we really content with a system that wastes so much talent? Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway (HarperCollins): love history? Done some patchwork? Find that a weird combination? Read this. Somehow it works. The reality of America in the 1800s is spelled out in grim detail. The terrors endured by runaway slaves are painted clearly; so, too, is the passion of people struggling to make a life for themselves. I read it in one sitting. I absolutely loved it.
Minister for education and skills, Wales
Melissa Benn’s School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso) offers a useful, powerfully composed overview of the schools reform debate in England, which underscores the importance of Wales pursuing its own distinctive path. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Canongate) by Richard Holloway is a wise and profoundly humane autobiography by one of the UK’s leading voices on ethical and moral issues.
Minister for universities and science, Westminster
Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (Anthem) is an expanded version of her excellent pamphlet for Demos. She shows that American practice in supporting innovation is very different from the rhetoric – and has helped to persuade me to shift our approach in the UK and adumbrate the eight great technologies. Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities (Oxford University Press) is a lucid summary of the case for the humanities that avoids the victim complex that is the bane of such discussions. And for something completely different, George F. Peterken on Meadows (British Wildlife Publishing) is a delight.
Lecturer in Romanticism, Queen Mary University of London
William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (Bloomsbury) recounts the first British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 and its staggeringly brutal endgame. It’s hard not to read it as a story of our times. It also has a recklessly philandering Scotsman/spy, Sir Alexander Burnes (cousin to Rabbie), who behaves so deliciously badly you’ll want to kick him in the shins. I haven’t even finished all of Dear Life (Vintage), but Alice Munro’s stories have lived with me for such a long time and with such quiet passion that I’m barely capable of explaining why.
Sir Michael Berry
Professor of physics (emeritus), University of Bristol
In Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian (Princeton University Press), a historical analysis leavened by many personal stories about Albert Einstein, A. Douglas Stone argues persuasively and engagingly that although this iconic scientist rejected quantum theory as a final theory of microscopic physics, he was responsible for most of its central concepts, including wave-particle duality, indeterminacy and the implications of identicalness. Philip Ball’s Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler (Bodley Head) avoids easy judgements. Ball examines sensitively the careers of three eminent physicists who continued to work in Nazi Germany, emphasising the very different ways in which each dealt (or failed to deal) with the moral dilemmas of working in an increasingly oppressive state.
Professor of behavioural ecology, University of Sheffield
Who would have imagined, 20 volumes and 28 years on, that I would be just as eager to read Darwin’s correspondence as each volume appears off the press. Like its predecessors, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: Volume 20: 1872 (Cambridge University Press) is a mine of information – indeed, it is almost like living Darwin’s life. What jumps from the pages is just how hard he worked. In 1872 Darwin is 63 and he’s just published the sixth – heavily revised – edition of On the Origin of Species. In a letter to Thomas Huxley he says: “It is dreadful doing nothing.” Take note, aspiring researchers. Napoleon A. Chagnon’s powerful Noble Savages: My Life among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (Simon & Schuster) is the fast, angry and ultimately tragic story of the conflicting values of real scientists (including the author), pseudoscientists (cultural anthropologists) and non-scientists (Catholic missionaries) over the Yanomami of the Amazon. It is hard to imagine academic research so bedevilled by different viewpoints. If the research involved microbes it wouldn’t matter; but it is about people and it matters a great deal, for this book tells us a lot about ourselves.
Professor of government, Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London
The book I most valued was Luuk van Middelaar’s The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union (Yale University Press), a brilliant account of the development of the European Union. The most insightful book on Europe since Larry Siedentop’s Democracy in Europe (2000), and essential reading before voting in the referendum. The book I most enjoyed was David Caute’s Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (Yale University Press). Caute transforms an academic squabble between Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher into a wide-ranging analysis of the ideological disputes of the 20th century – Marxism, the significance of the Russian revolution, liberalism and Zionism. Although condemned by Caute (wrongly in my view) for academic malfeasance, Berlin seems to me to emerge from the book greater than ever. It is a salutary thought that he would probably not have received tenure in today’s universities because so little of what he wrote was published in refereed journals.
Senior research fellow, Jesus College, Oxford
I’m going to be boring and recommend two history books, albeit two very different ones. The first is Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (Allen Lane). Given Britons’ obsession with the war and compulsive exaggeration of their importance and virtue in it, Overy’s book, with its cool demonstration of the incompetence, cruelty and futility of much action over Germany, ought to be compulsory reading. My second recommendation is a first, short (and not very well written) book by Filip Slaveski, The Soviet Occupation of Germany: Hunger, Mass Violence, and the Struggle for Peace, 1945-1947 (Cambridge University Press). If readers can fight their way through the poorly edited sentences, they will inoculate themselves against past popular histories that describe the Red Army as composed of mad and barbarous rapists and nothing else.
Professor of history, Birkbeck, University of London
For jaw-dropping horror, there is little to beat Robert M. Neer’s history of napalm, an incendiary gel that sticks to the skin and burns to the bone. Napalm: An American Biography (Harvard University Press) is a scholarly history of this weapon’s invention (on Valentine’s Day 1942, in a secret laboratory at Harvard) and use. To recover, I turned to Fifty Shades of Feminism (Little, Brown), edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach. I was mesmerised by the energy of these writers. Witty and smart, occasionally angry but always thoughtful and wise: this is a volume to give to any young woman sceptical about the F-word.
Northcliffe professor of English, University College London
When George Moore’s Esther Waters reappeared in 1920, long after its first publication in 1894, it elicited praise from Virginia Woolf. Almost a century later, and newly republished by Oxford University Press, Moore’s novel about a servant determined to keep her baby is still exceptional. Italo Calvino’s Letters, 1941-1985 (Princeton University Press) are rich in discussions of contemporary writing, with crossings and comparisons between the literary and political climates of Italy, France and America. At the height of international controversy about abortion, an extraordinary, complex letter of 1975 both acknowledges its pain and argues that continuing any pregnancy calls for parental commitment and capability.
Professor emeritus of physics, University of Oxford
My pleasure book is Tim Lott’s How to be Invisible (Walker), a lovely yarn that can be enjoyed by teenagers and oldies alike. Tim sent me a copy with the inscription, “I hope I got the science right.” Yes – quantum mechanics courtesy of potato guns. The story is superb, too. For work: Chapman Pincher’s Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-Ups: Six Decades of Espionage (Mainstream). With 80 chapters on MI5, double agents and the infiltration of British security, this is the sort of tome that makes a Kindle so convenient. An invaluable resource for my research into the two lives of Bruno Pontecorvo: a scientist, certainly – and a spy? My answer comes out in 2014.
Distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University Management School
My business book: Robin Ryde’s Never Mind the Bosses: Hastening the Death of Deference for Business Success (Jossey-Bass). The essence of this book was summarised by Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE: “Hierarchies tend to make little generals of perfectly normal people who find themselves in organisations that respond only to rank.” It is about introducing the equivalent of the Arab Spring in the workplace: less command and control and more engagement from leaders. As Lao-tzu suggested: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ ” My personal book: Two Brothers (Bantam), a story of two brothers born in Berlin in 1920. When the Nazis take power, the brothers’ lives take very different turns. This is a personal book from Ben Elton, and for many of us who come from an Eastern European Jewish background. It reminds me of Henry David Thoreau’s reflection, “How prompt we are to satisfy the hunger and thirst of our bodies; how slow to satisfy the hunger and thirst of our souls!” Powerful, and a great read; I couldn’t put it down.
Professor of practice, Sciences Po, Paris
Alan S. Blinder’s After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead (Penguin) is yet another financial crisis anatomy, and with an off-putting commendation from Bill Clinton on the cover. I did not expect to learn much that was new, but I did, and Blinder’s prose is a pleasure to read. Not quite as pleasurable, though, as that in The Son (HarperCollins), the second novel by Philipp Meyer. A magnificent, muscular, 200-year panorama of the life of a Texan family, with a touch of Cormac McCarthy, it provides a good reason why it was a mistake to open the Man Booker prize to US authors. This would win in almost any year.
Dwight D. Eisenhower professor of economics and international affairs, Princeton University
Nina Munk’s masterpiece The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (Doubleday) is a classic account of how technocratic and externally directed economic development must fail. Munk, a reporter for Vanity Fair, wanted to work on global poverty, and who better to shadow than Sachs, the “idealist” of the title? But idealism comes with ignorance and hubris, and Munk’s documentation of the failure of the Millennium Development Villages, in two of which she lived, ranks with Joseph Conrad in documenting an African descent into failure, destruction and betrayal. Jim Harrison’s The River Swimmer (Grove Press) shows that, like the wine that he loves, Harrison gets (even) better as he gets older. This great novelist writes about the outdoors, animals, food, wine, literature, love, lust and the nostalgia of ageing in an infectious celebration of life. He understands the losses that age brings, but his love of life transcends them, unbowed and somehow enhanced, making him a unique and joyous companion on the journey into old age.
Dame Athene Donald
Professor of experimental physics, University of Cambridge
A sweeping narrative of past and present, Steve McKevitt and Tony Ryan’s Project Sunshine: How Science Can Use the Sun to Fuel and Feed the World (Icon) explores the way we use (and waste) our resources and how solar power may yet solve the energy crisis. Written in lay terms, it’s still of great interest to the professional scientist, with wonderful factual nuggets and handy numbers to have up one’s sleeve. Adelene Buckland’s Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology (University of Chicago Press) brings together the way 19th-century novelists wove the new science of geology into their stories and how geologists learned to use narrative – then regarded as suspect in science – as an effective device to put their ideas across. I found this book illuminating on the expectations for an educated person of the time.
Professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London
Somewhere between pleasure and duty I read (nearly) all the Man Booker longlist: a really good year. Uncontroversially, I thought that the jury was right. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta) is clever and demanding, deeply interesting and ultimately rather moving. Two academic books both sought “similarities in dissimilars”, as Aristotle has it. Bryan Cheyette’s Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (Yale University Press) elegantly weaves together Jewish and postcolonial writers and thinkers to make new and unexpected links and illuminations. Finding ideas about cultural trauma too rooted in Europe and North America, Stef Craps’ Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma out of Bounds (Palgrave Macmillan) seeks to critique and transform our understandings of suffering by using a wider, global perspective.
Centennial professor at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics
My two books of the year are Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography (Penguin) by Charles Moore and Americanah (HarperCollins) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Neither fits easily into the category of “work” or “pleasure” because both were a great pleasure to read and both, I realised when I had read them, were about the same thing: women caught in various kinds of webs of power. Perhaps Moore’s is more closely the “work” book, not least because his footnotes reveal the “hidden” face of power in the UK: an endless procession of white, public school and Oxbridge men run key institutions and are unknown to the public. These people get everywhere: an Oxford friend of Thatcher was father of the owner of “Jesus Christ!” Fenton, the disobedient dog of Richmond Park fame. Adichie’s cast of characters is rather different, but in its own way offers an account of a web to be negotiated and the perils of the paths through it.
Sir Richard J. Evans
Regius professor of history and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge
The first volume of Volker Ullrich’s monumental new biography, Adolf Hitler: Die Jahre des Aufstiegs 1889-1939 (S. Fischer Verlag), is beautifully written, as befits the experienced journalist, and deeply and freshly researched, with many new details and a finely balanced judgement, as one would expect from the trained historian. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (John Murray) describes the third and final part of the author’s trek across Europe in the 1930s in rich and incomparably evocative prose.
By-fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge
Like every new book from the historian David Reynolds, the publication of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster) was an event. In the rich crop of current works on the First World War, this stands out majestically. It makes us think afresh about the conflict and its multiple legacies, several of them new to me. Al Gore and his researchers are equally impressive in the meticulously documented speculations they offer in The Future (Ebury). For many, Gore is now a figure of fun, but there is no doubting the seriousness of this book, which somehow manages to be both frightening and optimistic.
Professor of competition policy, University of East Anglia
My top work book this year is the second edition of The Law and Economics of Article 102 TFEU (Hart) by Robert O’Donoghue and A. Jorge Padilla. Following a much-needed update, this well-researched, thoughtful and highly readable book includes everything you could ever need to know about this key area of competition law. I almost picked Bob Stanley’s impressive Yeah Yeah Yeah (Faber) as my favourite pleasure book, but I’ve gone instead for a more obscure music title. Sam Knee’s A Scene in Between: Tripping through the Fashions of UK Indie Music 1980-1988 (Cicada) captures that era with beautifully evocative pictures and words.
Teaching fellow in the department of sociology, Durham University
Like Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff, I look for texts providing complete guidance to life. My Robinson Crusoe turns out to be the magnificent Hunter S. Thompson’s The Curse of Lono (Taschen). Every character breathes and sweats, from the drug mule with the blue arm to the Vietnam vet/race photographer. Thompson would undoubtedly reach for his Ruger to deal with Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press), but it is a great book on the varied and complex role of sound recording in the creation, distribution and consumption of music, and combines clarity and insight with constant readability. Straight to PowerPoint…
Senior lecturer in creative writing, University of Southampton
In The Reef: A Passionate History (Viking), Iain McCalman has produced a thrilling, multifaceted narrative of the Great Barrier Reef, combining human and natural history in a cinematic sweep – from the discoveries of Cook and Flinders to the contemporary threats facing one of the world’s greatest and richest natural structures. I’m a recent convert to bird-watching, and Jim Wilson’s brilliant Birds of Ireland: A Field Guide (Collins Press) – the product of a pioneering life observing birds there – is an equally wonderful resource for a UK watcher. Mark Carmody’s expert photographs allow the novice to identify even the most elusive birds. Without it, the spotted redshank would still be a mystery to me.
Honorary professor of cultural history, University of Warwick
Do not miss the admirable Steven Poole’s necessary, exuberant and bracing book Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon (Hodder & Stoughton). All the appalling cant is in there, from the commonplace “deliverables” and “strategy” to the exotic “drinking the Kool-Aid” and “rightshoring” (work them out). It is at once lighthearted and dead serious and, for sure, nothing is more important than making the everyday language of university decisions plain, sharp and truthful, mocking out of sight these abominable and mendacious metaphors and pretensions. The contrast with Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952‑2012 (Oxford University Press) could hardly be more marked. Hill has for 40-odd years kept his language as close-textured, tough, knotted and lyrical as poetry can be. If he makes old Eliot seem by comparison an easy read it is not for mere show; these poems are as beautiful, hard, compressed and granular as the rocks and stones and trees from which they are made.
Professor of physics and public engagement in science, University of Surrey
Steve Jones’ The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science (Little, Brown) is a fascinating book I’ve dipped into but can’t wait to sit down with. Jones has written many popular science books, but none this intriguing. He argues that the Bible was almost like a science textbook (much of which it got wrong) and so he has rewritten it in the light of modern science – from the origin of life to the birth and death of the universe. Quantum biology is an exciting new field of research – so new that it has not had a single academic textbook. Masoud Mohseni et al’s long-awaited graduate-level text Quantum Effects in Biology (Cambridge University Press) comes out next year. With contributions from many leaders in the field, it covers topics as diverse as proton tunnelling in enzymes, quantum coherence in photosynthesis and even quantum entanglement as an explanation of how migratory birds sense the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. Wonderful, if rather formal, stuff.
Sandra Leaton Gray
Senior lecturer in education, Institute of Education, University of London
For work: Multimodality and Social Semiosis: Communication, Meaning-Making, and Learning in the Work of Gunther Kress (Routledge), edited by Margit Böck and Norbert Pachler. One of my research areas involves analysing the principles and assumptions behind teacher talk, which I link to concepts of social time and identity. I’ve also written about how wider educational discourses can often unwittingly disrupt educational processes. In uniting these concepts, I rely on the work of scholars such as Basil Bernstein, Patrick Baert and Gunther Kress. I’ve chosen this impressive book, a Festschrift, for its thorough roundup of Kress’ work and the field in general, and its challenges to look beyond the obvious. For leisure: Joel Rickett’s H Is for Hummus: A Modern Parent’s ABC (Viking). A tongue-in-cheek look at the perils of middle-class parenting. Highlights include “C” (“controlled crying”) and “R” (“reward chart”). Preferably to be read sitting in a Waitrose cafe while you snort with laughter into your lapsang souchong. More seriously, it pops the bubble of some of the absolute nonsense being peddled as fact and science to Britain’s sleep-deprived, harassed, anxious parents, and that can only be a good thing. (I want a higher education version…H is for Hefce, perhaps?)
Professor of Renaissance studies, University of Glasgow
Muriel Spark’s Mary Shelley (Carcanet) is a reissue of a reissue of a reassessment – Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Shelley (1951), revised by Spark in 1987 – that adds another “MS” to the mix via Michael Schmidt’s insightful introduction, which elegantly illustrates just how illuminating this bold biography is as a beacon for Spark’s own life and work. Chiew-Siah Tei was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize for her 2008 debut novel Little Hut of Leaping Fishes. The sequel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom (Picador), follows Tei’s characters from early 20th-century China to Malaysia, tracing the complex encounter between refugees and natives in a delicate prose that depicts large events and issues in exquisite detail.
Formerly associate professor of Chinese, history and comparative literature, Dartmouth College
Ma Jian’s The Dark Road (Chatto) is a dark and stupefying novel about women and children and official cruelty in China. It is also, literally, fantastic. In Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence (Harvard University Press) by Gloria Davies, China’s greatest 20th-century writer is ably evaluated. He was much admired by Mao Zedong, who would have silenced him had Lu lived after the Communist victory in 1949.
Formerly professor of political science, European University Institute, Florence
Of all the pre-centenary studies of the run-up to 1914, Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (Profile) seems certain to be a winner. She discusses not only military alliances and diplomatic crises, but also, with perceptive originality, the main social, administrative and intellectual features of pre‑1914 Europe and their part in preparing nations for war. Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth (Vintage) conveys a compelling air of reality. Its supporting cast includes some real-life individuals, and McEwan skilfully evokes locations from Islington to Cambridge, and from the University of Sussex to the drab corridors of MI5. The plot brings unexpected twists in the relationships between remarkable but credible characters.
Distinguished service professor of French, comparative literature and social thought, University of Chicago
For “work”: James Chandler’s An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (University of Chicago Press). This beautiful book shows how the morality of sentiment rooted in the fiction of Samuel Richardson and the philosophy of Adam Smith shaped not only late 18th-century English literature, but also Romantic poetry, the 19th-century novel, Modernist prose and 20th-century film. For “pleasure”: John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Allen Lane). A lively, sensitive and musically convincing biography. Gardiner’s BBC film Bach: A Passionate Life, available on YouTube, is a great companion to the book. A detail: no one has ever better explained and conducted the beginning of the St John Passion.
A. W. Purdue
Visiting professor in history, Northumbria University
In 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War Was Fought and Won (Hodder & Stoughton), Saul David chooses his key hundred days from Britain’s declaration of war on Germany to the signing of an armistice in a railway carriage on 11 November 1918 with the expertise of a military historian. But what makes his accounts of the great battles of the war so evocative is his keen eye for the experience of soldiers and sailors and for the reactions of civilians to victories and defeats, and the terrible carnage that came with them. All of us hooked by the first four volumes of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet chronicles, which tell the story of a wealthy family within the framework of mid-19th century British history, have had a long wait to find out what happened to the family we left blinking in the harsh light of the late 1940s. At the age of 90, Howard this year provided us with All Change (Mantle), a fifth volume that takes the Cazalets into the 1950s. I devoured it.
Professor of women’s and gender history, University of Portsmouth
My favourite academic book for 2013 was Lorna Gibb’s West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rebecca West (Macmillan). Despite short-changing West’s writings, Gibb draws a vivid portrait of this talented, contradictory feminist who had many disastrous relationships with the opposite sex. Who said a feminist’s life is easy? I Am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) is my favourite “pleasure” book. Malala has shown extraordinary courage in campaigning for the millions of girls who are still denied an education. Uplifting and inspirational.
Professor of sport, law and media, Charles Sturt University, Australia
Simon Winlow and Steve Hall, outriders of a radically different political economy for our era, have done it again with Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? (Sage). The best account of capitalism since the 2007‑08 crash, this is an intellectual tour de force, castigating the liberal right and the liberal left as Winlow and Hall offer a thoroughgoing critical analysis, and the possibility of a new politics, to counter the deepening effects of neoliberalism. Morrissey’s Autobiography (Penguin) is the funniest and most intriguing book on the “truths” of pop culture since Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Like Dylan, Morrissey tantalises us with our own assumptions and prejudices about pop and its practitioners, and still comes up with something radically reflexive and new. Controversially published in Penguin Classics (that joke is funny!), here Morrissey writes like he wrote lyrics for The Smiths. Hilarious and cutting. Kisses under the Iron Bridge, anyone?
Senior lecturer in English, University of Chester
For work: Alana M. Vincent’s Making Memory: Jewish and Christian Explorations in Monument, Narrative, and Liturgy (Pickwick). When dealing with complex ideas about belief, Vincent’s writing is consistently lucid. This is a fresh and appealing read – not always the case with academic monographs – because of her ability to draw on remarkably diverse sources; the section on Anne of Green Gables is surprising but compelling. For pleasure: Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway (HarperCollins). Like her earlier novels, it showcases her remarkable talent for inhabiting the minds of “ordinary” characters whose lives intersect with momentous historical events. Although the Quaker protagonist, Honor Bright, is occasionally a little self-absorbed, this mid-19th-century-set story of slavery and religious conscience is an immensely pleasurable read.
Emerita professor of social policy, University of Bradford
In the remarkable Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time (Penguin), Penelope Lively does not simply explore the ageing process but writes from inside it, still connected by memory to the past. She dispassionately unpicks what it means to be old, from embarrassingly forgetting names to the lasting pleasures of a lifelong passion for books. NHS SOS: How the NHS Was Betrayed – And How We Can Save It (Oneworld), edited by Jacky Davies and Raymond Tallis, is essential reading. These public intellectuals with expert knowledge spell out the systemic weakening by successive Conservative and New Labour governments, culminating in the coalition’s demolition of its very foundations. They are very, very angry; we should be as well – and, what’s more, protesting.
Emeritus professor of neuroscience, The Open University
Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry (Blue Rider Press) is a devastating critique of the making of American psychiatry’s latest disaster, the fifth and hopefully final version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in which grief at bereavement becomes depression and childhood temper tantrums are candidates for drug treatment. William Dalrymple’s superb Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (Bloomsbury) is a meticulous, compelling history of Britain’s earlier catastrophic Afghan attempt to foist a puppet leader on a society it did not understand but wished to control. It should, but probably won’t, be required reading for any politician or general ruminating on the current disastrous mess.
Professor in the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield
Peter Hall’s Good Cities, Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism (Routledge) is already the book everyone is talking about as we see our cities’ planning departments decimated around us. It is a beacon of what is possible and gives hope. I know J. K. Rowling gets a lot of publicity, but I really enjoyed The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown). A serious and gripping book offering a spot-on portrait of NIMBY Britain today. When you meet the characters, you feel an immediate sense of déjà vu.
Oliver Smithies fellow, Balliol College, Oxford
Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Penguin) is a fascinating attempt to apply moral psychology to politics. It describes cutting-edge research in an entertaining, accessible manner and addresses one of the most important questions facing modern democracies: how do you get people with opposing views of right and wrong to compromise? Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin) distils half a century of research into human decision-making into one compelling volume. If you are proud of your ability to analyse, synthesise and make good judgements, this book will be a useful (and humbling) experience.
Peter J. Smith
Reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University
For all the ubiquity and significance (cultural and financial) of reviewing, its principles and history remain obscure. Paul Prescott’s superb Reviewing Shakespeare: Journalism and Performance from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Cambridge University Press) charts the metamorphoses of the dark art from the 18th-century essayists, through George Bernard Shaw, James Agate and the astringent Kenneth Tynan to the emergence online of a “trenchant crowd-sourced metacriticism”. Rory Kinnear’s The Herd (Nick Hern) is set on the 21st birthday of Andy, who is severely disabled. The play listens in on his family’s living-room chatter as their various relationships buckle and warp with the pressures of separation, old age, resentment and anxious optimism. The pervading tone is regretful nostalgia: “That’s all life is. Luck. And doggedness.”
Emeritus professor of sociology, University of York
Just when the imaginative campus novel seemed to have expired for ever, buried beneath the dull factual weight of the research excellence framework, along comes Paul Hoggart’s A Man against a Background of Flames (Pighog), a funny, exciting, observant story of a university historian who stumbles across a set of late 16th-century manuscripts that threaten to precipitate a new religious war. Ideal for Boxing Day. Colin Jerolmack’s The Global Pigeon (University of Chicago Press) is easily the most surprising and most delightful ethnography of the year: an elegantly written, detailed study of how humans, whether on the Piazza San Marco or Trafalgar Square or in the pigeon lofts of New York and Berlin, contrive to interact with these versatile birds. Its exploration of human/animal interaction provides some wonderfully subtle answers to John Berger’s classic essay question “Why look at animals?”.
Geraldine Van Bueren QC
Professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary University of London
The joy of summer research is luxurious rereading. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (Penguin) was one treat: popular during his lifetime, this work has been regrettably ignored by most 21st-century politicians. Paine’s foresight demonstrated that human rights ought to include socio-economic rights, protecting the most vulnerable and benefiting the entire community. Eve Harris’ debut novel The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone) was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. In a story set in the Haredi (Orthodox) Jewish communities of Golders Green and Jerusalem, Harris displays empathy for the tension between the desire for autonomy by some Haredi women and the comfort of secure, ritualised orthodoxy.
Former mistress of Girton College, Cambridge
My first choice must be Alan Ryan’s monumental On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present (Allen Lane). I’m working on the political implications of the idea of ownership, and I wanted to see his take on John Locke. But I began at the beginning and was gripped. He starts with Herodotus to make us think what would have happened to the idea of democracy if the Persians had won the battle of Salamis. He also makes us realise how different from ours that notion was, in the context of a tiny city-state. This is his great strength: at every stage he fills in the historical backdrop of the political thought that he – most lucidly – discusses. For sad pleasure, a bit more politics: Tony Benn’s A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries (Cornerstone Hutchinson). I have loved the diaries from the beginning, even though I hate mugs of tea, pipes and far Left politics. But Benn has been a wonderful diary-keeper, personal, observant, often vitriolic. This is a reflective and deeply touching swansong.
Lecturer in higher education and academic practice, University of Kent
Mats Alvesson’s The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education and Work Organization (Oxford University Press) is an engaging read that bravely tackles higher education orthodoxies. Alvesson explores the “grandiosity” employed in universities’ marketing rhetoric and in government exhortations to increase student numbers to serve a knowledge economy. He suggests that the hyperbole promotes a culture of narcissism among students and masks a broader intellectual vacuum. Dave Eggers’ The Circle (Hamish Hamilton) is gripping. Readers are drawn into a dystopian near-future society where a global internet giant, “the Circle”, gains influence by gathering information about people’s lives. Eggers uses his characters to illustrate the enthusiasm with which people relinquish their own privacy, and to show why it’s so important to protect it.