The Best Scholarly Books of the Decade


This is a collection of titles that you would never stumble into easiuly.  My advice is to order them all up and to force yourself to at least read the intro.  Surprise yourself.

These ar the best choices and fairly we all need this help to pick random titles.  There is sadly, way too much competition out there for our attention.

All good though.


The Best Scholarly Books of the Decade


You're probably stuck at home. Here's what to read next.

April 14, 2020 PREMIUM


Thomas Allen for The Chronicle


Last year, in a pungent essay for Harper’s, Christian Lorentzen railed against the media’s obsession for bookish "Best Of" lists, which have in recent years “achieved a sort of mania": "What is the utility — to anyone — of an item like ‘Hot Books for Cold Days’?" He has a point. At their worst, such lists are little better than advertising puffery.

This list is better — more like a conversation among friends than a boosterish emanation of the publishing industry. As every scholar knows, it can become all too easy to cease learning about ideas outside of one’s own field. If you’re craving recommendations for recent reading across disciplines, these essays — for which we’ve asked 11 scholars to discuss "the best scholarly book" of the last decade — are for you.

Is this list definitive? Of course not. But it is rich, surprising, and idiosyncratic. You're probably stuck at home. Here's what to read next.



An Object Lesson in Engaging With One’s Opponents
By Amia Srinivasan

It’s been a bad decade for politics, but a great decade for political theory. Three standouts for me were Shatema Threadcraft’s Intimate Justice, Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire, and Kathi Weeks’s The Problem With Work. But the scholarly book that affected me most powerfully this past decade was Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (Verso, 2018). It is a thrilling and formidable intervention into contemporary discussions of sex work, and settles the debate in favor of full and immediate global decriminalization. It does so without insisting that there is nothing troubling about sex work: about the psychosexual forces that lead men to buy it, or the economic forces that compel women to sell it.


To say that "sex work is work" is not to say, Mac and Smith explain, that it is thereby valuable or unproblematic, but simply that it is something that is overwhelmingly done out of material necessity. Mac and Smith show empirically that the women who need to sell sex to survive are rarely made better off through legal restrictions on the selling or purchase of sex. What does make such women better off is the strengthening of their labor power: recourse to legal remedies against violent or non-paying clients, the ability to unionize and form cooperatives, freedom from the carceral power of the state.

Indeed, full decriminalization is the only plausible path to the abolition of sex work. Longstanding feminist pro-criminalization arguments rest, Mac and Smith argue, on the false premise that legal restrictions on sex work decrease its prevalence. In fact, legal restrictions merely drive sex work underground, asymmetrically burdening the more vulnerable party in the exchange: the sellers of sex. This is true, Mac and Smith explain, even of the Nordic model, which criminalizes the purchase but not the sale of sex. (In that model sex workers take more risks to earn the same amount of money, as johns become fearful of arrest.)

Some feminists will remain unconvinced. "For feminist women," they write, "the figure of the prostitute often comes to represent the trauma that is inflicted on all women within patriarchy … The client thus becomes the symbol of all violent men." Mac and Smith sympathize, but urge feminists to resist this impulse. What is really at stake in feminist debates about sex work is a choice between symbolically punishing men on the one hand, and practically improving the conditions of the worst-off women on the other. This is not only a profound diagnosis of the sex-work debate, but also an object lesson in what it looks like to engage sympathetically with one’s opponents — a practice that is too often ceded by radical theorists to liberals and centrists.

Revolting Prostitutes is a model of how to write about politics — or, indeed, anything. That it is written by two sex workers will, but shouldn’t, come as a surprise to many.

Amia Srinivasan is a professor of social and political theory at All Souls College, Oxford.



The Real Corridors of Our Nation’s Power

By Steven Salaita
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When The Chronicle asked me to select the best scholarly book of the decade, it sounded like a fun exercise. When it came time to pick a book, I realized that I had taken on an impossible task. I also realized that I was on the brink of upsetting a lot of people..

I kept returning to a particular title, though: Andrew Friedman’s Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (University of California Press, 2013). I won’t say it’s the best scholarly book of the decade, or the most rigorous or original or interesting. It may be. But it’s simply the book that had the greatest impact on my view of the world.

I left academe a few years ago and subsequently became a school-bus driver in Northern Virginia. Just before I started that job, I read Covert Capital. The landscape of Northern Virginia will never look the same to me again — everywhere I turn, I see Friedman’s analysis in living color. It strikes me as a terrific accomplishment to have written a book that’s equally relevant to college professors and bus drivers. Though the intelligence industry isn’t always visible, one constantly senses its presence. Its rapid growth since the 1950s also created a prosperous, high-tech region whose’s centrality to U.S. foreign policy belies its idyllic self-image.

Covert Capital is part historiography, part geography, part travelogue, part sociology, part critical theory, and part urban studies. At times the prose is dense, but most readers won’t find it too demanding. Friedman has a wonderful eye for the particulars of suburban geography. The book is filled with anecdotes about D.C.-area landmarks and legendary figures of the Cold War. It’s hard to imagine that governments rose and fell based on poolside conversations at a country house in McLean, Va., owned by Eleanor Dulles (sister of John Foster and Allen), but Friedman illustrates exactly how it happened.

Friedman’s analysis is relevant far beyond the D.C. region. It provides an unsettling picture of the entire world, connecting a model of domestic bliss to overseas destitution. It’s exciting reading for people who ply their trade in college classrooms as well as those who earn a living on the roadways that Friedman shows to be the real corridors of our nation’s power.

Steven Salaita is the author of Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books, 2015).



A Book That’s Banned in Prisons

By Stefan M. Bradley

To be classified as the best scholarly book of the decade, a work needs to have rearranged the way people thought, spoke, and acted in the most conservative of academic spaces and also in the last place reserved for critical and free debate: the black barbershop. If not discussed in those spaces and beyond, it cannot rank. Further, if it did not incite policy changes (on any level), then it cannot be the best.

I thought of how powerfully Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy linked the nation’s oldest institutions of higher education to the racially oppressive system of slavery. Or how another work, Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776, examined slave resistance to argue that slavery was a motivating factor in the calculus for independence. It did not win any mainstream awards because of its antagonistic thesis, yet delighted my scholar friends.

But the best book of the 2010s was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (The New Press, 2010). 

It took the academy and the streets by storm, and forced the nation to reconsider the systems that allowed for blatant discrimination. It reflected the frustrations of so many black people, who in hair shops, churches, and community centers decried the expendability of black lives.


In recent years, some American prisons have banned The New Jim Crow. Unsurprisingly, the book was used in the fight against stop and frisk. When I worked in the St. Louis community before and during the uprisings in Ferguson, it was the one scholarly work that organizers consistently referenced. Indeed, not a month has passed that I have not heard it invoked.

The New Jim Crow was not without its controversy. In scholarly circles, some questioned the work’s implication that the Jim Crow movement was an exclusively Southern affair, and others cautioned the conflation of the prison industrial complex, which is evil in and of itself, with the terrifying institution of slavery. Despite those critiques, The New Jim Crow has fortified the sentiments of marginalized black America and changed how mainstream America discusses law enforcement, criminal justice, and the penal system. For me, it is unquestionably the best book of the decade.

Stefan M. Bradley is chair of and professor in the department of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University. He is author of Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League (NYU Press, 2018).



A New Vocabulary for Art

By Merve Emre


Last year, an editor at a London fashion magazine wrote to me to commission an essay "against coziness," about the compromised pleasures of beautifully tailored and extravagantly priced articles of casual clothing: sweatpants, bathrobes, and socks; onesies for grown men and women. I responded by asking if she had read Sianne Ngai’s glorious and intensely fun book, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2012), which names "cuteness" the dominant aesthetic of late capitalism and theorizes it as "the desire for an ever more intimate, ever more sensuous relation to objects already regarded as familiar and unthreatening," i.e., socks and onesies and other items we can "lovingly molest" — snuggly, squishy, soft, and small; vulnerable, domesticated, feminized, and apparently irrelevant to public culture. The editor replied that she had read the book, and, eager to memorialize her appreciation for it, added, "Sianne Ngai would be a perfect name for our vision board!"

Our correspondence ended there. The piece remained unwritten. But I thought of it when selecting Our Aesthetic Categories as the best book of the decade and trying to articulate my selection criteria. One of them is that a book should take you by the hand and show you, with startling clarity, why its concepts and terms should also be yours. Ngai’s categories — cute, zany, and interesting — seem, at first, minor, frivolous, and ineffectual. But they are trivial because art is increasingly trivial in relation to the wider domain of aesthetic experience, which now encompasses everything from "jeans to genes" (as Hal Foster puts it) in a world saturated with design and creativity, by mass-media spectacles and the internet. The rapturous shocks of the beautiful or the sublime, the Enlightenment’s aesthetic categories, have little purchase on art produced in an aggressive entanglement with commercial culture. What is needed is a new vocabulary to understand why we feel less intensely, less determinately, about aesthetic novelty.


The vision board proves a surprisingly useful metaphor for how Ngai’s vocabulary works on you. Once you see the relationship of aesthetics and late capitalism as Ngai wants you to see it, you cannot unsee it. You cannot unfeel or unthink the deep ambivalences that her categories reveal about the way we produce and consume art. I cannot skim an article about the "cuteness of maternity overalls" or the "rather cute style" of a Lydia Davis translation without thinking about the cute’s "eroticization of powerlessness" — how it "evokes tenderness" for diminutive things only to make it easier to trivialize or crush them. It is impossible for me to read a novel by Helen DeWitt or Fran Ross or binge a season of Broad City without recalling Ngai’s radiant and impassioned writing about "the zany": a character and worker who "can take on any job at any moment, in an incessant flow or stream of activity," exhausting herself, endangering her life, to make us laugh at the precarity under which she labors, distancing us from any sense of solidarity with her.


Our Aesthetic Categories pulls its historical and formal arguments together with such precision and verve that the book seems suddenly to hold the whole world in its pages. These are "our" aesthetic categories not just because we all live under late capitalism. They are "ours" because Ngai gives us a language of feminist and materialist criticism to think and feel the contradictions of the present acutely. She cuts the pleasure we take from art with displeasure at the world we inhabit. She makes me look at wool socks and plush onesies with fresh appreciation and horror. One wonders if the categories will hold up — judgments of "cute" and "zany" already feel dated — but that’s even more reason to claim this as the best book of the last decade and wait for what categories she will bring to the next one.


Merve Emre is an associate professor of English at Oxford University.



The Brotherhood of the Crookedly-Worn Hat


By Noah Feldman


Few scholarly books published in the last decade, or any decade, can compare to the late Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2016) for its combination of analytic brilliance, erudition, ambition, and romantic tragedy. This monumental book is no less than a comprehensive rethinking of the nature of Islam, understood as a "historical and human phenomenon" that both makes Muslims and is made by them.

What Is Islam? begins with a long chapter delineating six fundamental questions about what counts as "Islamic." These derive from the fact that pre-eminent philosophical, mystical, and poetic aspects of Islamic thought — including the glorification of wine — all seem to contradict basic theological and legal propositions of what is often called "normative" Islam. The book’s cover exemplifies these apparent contradictions: it shows a gold coin depicting the Mughal emperor Jahangir holding a wine cup and a book.



Taking these contradictions as its starting point, Ahmed’s work then rejects standard accounts of Islam as law, as well as the distinction between "Islamic" and "Islamicate" proposed by Marshall Hodgson in his influential 1974 Venture of Islam. In their place, and after a stunning engagement with contemporary theories drawn from religious studies and anthropology, Ahmed proposes a new definition of Islam as a distinctive form of meaning-making.

Along the way, Ahmed shows definitively that the Islam that predominated for nearly a millennium in what he dubs the "Balkans-to-Bengal complex" was not the Islam of the classical "orthodox" legal and theological textbooks. He proves his case through analysis supported by original texts in well over a dozen languages, each of which he translated and copiously transliterated. (I proofread the manuscript when Ahmed could not, and I got help with languages I didn’t know; one of them, Saraiki, was a language of which I had never heard at all.) And he posits a fifth madhhab, or school of Islamic legal thought: the school of love, followed by the philosophers, poets, and mystics who compose the brotherhood of the crookedly-worn hat.

The impact of What Is Islam? has already been considerable. Beyond reviews and symposia, a new liberal-arts college in Pakistan based its first-year curriculum on a close study of the book. That is appropriate because the book is, among many other things, a timely plea to reject the dual hegemony of Orientalist scholarship on the one hand and Salafi writing on the other — traditions that agree, oddly, on the primacy of the shari’a in conceptualizing and defining Islam.

The tragedy surrounding the book derives from two events that followed hard upon one another. In 2014, while Ahmed was finishing a draft of his masterpiece, his colleagues at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations saw fit to deny him tenure. Then, with the book about to be published in the summer of 2016, Ahmed was stricken with a rare form of leukemia that took his life in a few short months. He saw a galley from his hospital bed, just before the end.


Ahmed’s grave is marked by the words of the Pakistani poet Munīr Niyāzī, which he also used as the epigraph for the book’s conclusion:

What account of my deeds, to anyone, could I give?

All the questions were wrong; what answers could I give?

Ahmed was a once-in-a-generation scholar; a brilliant, witty conversationalist; an irrepressible advocate for what he believed; and a kind and gentle friend. In What Is Islam? he left a scholarly monument of such stuff as the dreams of academic mortals are made on.

Noah Feldman is a professor of law at Harvard University. His new book is The Arab Spring: A Tragedy, out in May from Princeton.

Thomas Allen for The Chronicle

On Killing

By Samuel Moyn


When I told my colleague James Scott that, in beginning a new project on the history of humane warfare and its costs, I was exploring an analogy with the project of improving the slaughter of nonhuman animals, he asked me if I had read Every Twelve Seconds (Yale University Press, 2013), by his former student Timothy Pachirat.


I acquired a copy and read it with rapt attention. I had once taught an entire class about animals, without ever fully convincing myself to abstain from eating them. On the strength of Pachirat’s study I resolved to try. And that is just one indication of the impact this extraordinary book has on its readers. It is one of the most absorbing descriptions of horror I have ever read. And it bears on how we reconcile ourselves to a host of practices that we are morally uncertain about even as we participate in them, "delegating" our "terrible work to others," as Pachirat puts it, "while disclaiming responsibility for it."

As a graduate student, Pachirat posed as a migrant worker and cycled through several jobs on the "kill floor" of a slaughterhouse in Omaha — one of the few massive ones still operating on American soil. With acumen and style, Pachirat meticulously describes the layout of meat production and the stages of what he calls "de-animalization": Cattle are dismembered quickly, to mask what they are from those producing and consuming. Easily the most chilling descriptions in the book concern how the ethics and law of humane treatment affect the killing of the animals. In the small area where only a few employees administer death with metronomic regularity, Pachirat shows, they abstain from the cattle prod if monitors are watching, and make sure to stun the animal before taking its life.


Pachirat, as good at theorizing what he sees as he is at portraying it, is interested in what he calls "the politics of sight." Brilliantly, he proposes that the distance between audience and death we are accustomed to think about in far flung wars also obtains at closer quarters. Not merely the consumers in the grocery store but also visitors and workers themselves are protected by spatial intermediation — "a wall, a mirror, a checkpoint, a gate" — from knowing what others do for them.

A century ago, Leo Tolstoy walked right into his local slaughterhouse to witness "modern" slaughter. No one can do so now. But Pachirat’s book provides a contemporary version of what Tolstoy offered: Through spare prose describing what is done for us, it unmasks us for who we are.

Samuel Moyn is a professor of jurisprudence and history at Yale University.



The Nature of Thought
By Anastasia Berg


It is notoriously easy to mock analytic philosophy for its willingness to question just about any assumption. Is water in fact H2O? Are we just brains in vats? Should we tell the Nazi at the door where the Jews are hiding? Yet this seeming radical openness, Irad Kimhi argues in his long-awaited Thinking and Being (Harvard University Press, 2018), disguises one of analytic philosophy’s gravest failures: its refusal to question the nature of thought.

In Thinking and Being, a book that was decades in the making, Kimhi returns to what was once acknowledged to be the most essential philosophical puzzle. This is the puzzle, surviving in fragment form in Parmenides’s poem On Nature, of how it is possible to think of what is not. The question of how we can think of the ways in which particular things are not — as when, in the dead of night, we wistfully think that it is a shame that it is not day — immediately implies another one: namely, the question of how we can think of things that are not as they were — that is, how we can think of things that change. This means that to ask how we are able to think what is not is to ask how we are able to think of the natural world — of the seasons that pass, of the tide that comes and goes, of the animals that live and die. If we do not understand how we can think of what is not, then, we do not understand how we can think about anything at all.

Kimhi’s attempt to convey the urgency of this challenge and meet it takes the form of a critical engagement with philosophical texts ranging from Aristotle’s Metaphysics to Kant’s first Critique to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. His goal is to dismantle those pictures of the nature of thought — in analytic philosophy but also in German idealism — that have obscured the problems Parmenides recognized as fundamental to our self-understanding. Each tradition, Kimhi demonstrates, fails to grasp the insight upon which the other is founded.

Idealists are right to focus on what makes thinking unique, namely, the special form of mental activity (Kant calls this the unity of self-consciousness) which constitutes thought. But they go astray when they allege that this thinking is an activity of a disembodied, logical subject, for whom language is merely a means of sensibly expressing thoughts. Analytic philosophy conceives of language as the proper subject of philosophical inquiry, but not in the right way. It conceives of thinking as a relation in which a subject stands to special entities — on this picture a thinker has a "propositional attitude" toward a "thought." The structure of thoughts and the relations that hold between them are represented in language, which the analytic tradition thinks of as a system of sentences governed by the rules of grammar. This is why, in order to study thought, we must focus our sights on language. However, by conceiving of thinking as a relation toward an object, analytic philosophy forfeits the ability to recognize the unique significance of the activity of the thinking subject.

To misconstrue thought in this way is a perversion of our understanding of who we are. Language, Kimhi argues, is neither merely a tool for expressing thoughts nor a mirror of logical relations. It is only through language that we think at all. And it is only by recognizing this that we may hope to solve the Parmenidean puzzle about how we can think of that which is not.

The significance of Kimhi’s account extends beyond its ability to solve some stubborn philosophical problems. By recognizing the inextricability of thought and language, Kimhi clarifies the sense in which we are not simply another thing in nature, even though our existence takes place squarely within the material world. The potential of Kimhi’s radically new conception of thought and language to revolutionize not only logic and metaphysics but also practical philosophy, i.e., the philosophy of action and ethics, is immeasurable. Whether this potential will be actualized depends on just how open to questioning contemporary academic philosophy really is.

Anastasia Berg is a junior research fellow in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.



The Rotten Dichotomy Between Environmentalism and Social Justice

By Anna Tsing

“Iam a man in love with nature. I am an eco-addict." Thus begins J. Drew Lanham’s extraordinary memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed, 2016). So far, good enough. The surprise, however, follows immediately after: Lanham is African American; he is an ornithologist and a lover of wild things in a world in which most readers expect nature-loving to be a white endeavor. Lanham explains how much he wishes there were other black scientists at the ornithology meetings he attends. He tells of being stalked by suspicious whites when he looks for birds in the American countryside, where blacks are not supposed to be. He explains his idea that reparations for slavery could be ecological, restoring the landscapes earned by African American sweat. Environmental integrity would reap major benefits not just in the moment but for our children, and their children.

All of this comes to life as Lanham draws us into his childhood in the rural South, where he grew up on an independent farm surrounded by bird-filled woods. His father’s hard work on the farm; his grandmother’s folk wisdom and knowledge of plants; his family’s involvement with religion, civil rights, and war — these things paved the way to his professional interest in birds and his love of the natural world. His childhood opens a lifelong path of finding inspiration and taking solace in the Southern countryside — the same landscape where his ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved. Rather than erase the countryside, with its teeming life and terrors, he shows readers how to reclaim it.

Too often, our ideas of what it means to be black are contained within the life of the city. The countryside is banished; it can only be known for its violence and bad memories. Yet many African Americans continue to live in the countryside and many in cities are proud, not ashamed, of their rural roots. Lanham’s memoir makes it possible to imagine a confident black embrace of nature.

This matters for everyone — black, white, or otherwise — who cares about the state of the world today. By surrendering the world to imperial and industrial standards, we chop away at the very surroundings that allow us to live. Yet the dominant common sense asks us to divide our loyalties: Either we support racial justice or we support the environment. There can be no more important task in the world today than to upend this rotten dichotomy, to heal the manufactured rift between environmentalism and the fight for social justice. Lanham’s memoir — "a colored man’s love affair with nature" — offers us one way to begin.

Anna Tsing is a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.



A Sustained Comedy of Manners

By David Halperin


Christopher Reed’s Bachelor Japanists (Columbia University Press, 2016) may not be the best scholarly book of the past decade — there have been many masterpieces of scholarship on topics of urgent importance — but it is the book that afforded me the greatest pleasure. I read it very slowly, so as to savor each detail and each precise, well-judged formulation. It is a book that took me out of my world — out of my anxiety about the present and the future — and transported me to three different, distant eras, reconstituting for me the aesthetic rapture and, sometimes, bad taste that defined the obsessive relation of certain Westerners to the culture of a Japan they didn’t quite understand.

Scholarship rarely produces such a sustained comedy of manners. And that achievement is even more unexpected in this case, because the issues with which Reed must deal are thorny and ponderous, the sorts of issues that typically give rise to much heavy weather in academic discourse: Orientalism, commercialism, imperialism, sexual identity and desire, and the inner life of the art world (museums, connoisseurship, the art market, institutional politics). Reed handles all of them in a responsible, thoughtful, tactful, nonreductive way. But he does not allow them to dim the charm of his offbeat tale, which stretches from mid-19th-century Paris to postwar Seattle, or to obscure the fascinating and hilariously unsystematic relations between art and sex, aesthetics and erotics, genre and gender.

Best of all is simply the density of detail. The reader can delight in the untranscended minutiae of history that a nominalist approach to the past provides. I was especially struck by Reed’s precise handling and translation of obscure French literary sources, some of them drawn from vast, unreadable tracts by the now-unfashionable Goncourt brothers. And it was very entertaining — gripping, even — to follow his detective work as he tracked down the address on the Rue de Rivoli of what seems to have been the earliest shop in Paris to sell Japanese artifacts to the likes of Baudelaire, along with the name of its female Jewish proprietor.

The book is economically but beautifully and eloquently written; it’s witty, sharp, moving, and lovingly elaborated beyond the needs of utility or sufficiency.

David Halperin is professor of English, comparative literature, women’s studies, and classics at the University of Michigan.



The Concepts of Everyday Life
By McKenzie Wark

What makes Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie (The Feminist Press, 2013) the standout book of the decade for me is that it is so singularly an original work in both form and content. It is Preciado just on the cusp of transition, in a liminal space between genders. There is writing here that has all the wonder and surprise of that passage into the unknown of one’s own body.

Preciado knows that the personal and the political — or, rather, the subjective and the technical — are on intimate terms. He writes across our habitual sense of the separation of public and private, taking the reader with him as he discovers the technics of hormones inscribed in the intimate details of everyday life. And there are some amusing polemical passages directed at those Italian and French writers who made so much of Marx’s passing remarks in the Grundrisse notebooks on the "general intellect" — as if sex work and emotional labor were not also ways in which the human enters into commodification.

It’s a book that takes a novel form, but Preciado is aware of the long historical relation between changes in the form of life-writing and the kinds of lives that can be lived. Indeed, for me, a lovely detail of this book is that part of its genesis came out of Preciado’s studying St. Augustine’s Confessions with Jacques Derrida here at the New School, where I teach. It takes someone of Preciado’s gifts to see the Confessions immediately as a text applicable to how transgender people write and live our lives. It is also a very contemporary book. While steeped in Foucault, it understands from the outset that most people today produce their gender and sexuality via internet porn as much as via disciplinary apparatuses or the family. It is a fine example of what I call low theory: it is less a product of the comp-lit seminar room and more interested in directly generating concepts out of everyday life — in this case, that of a trans-national network of gender rebels and queer artists. It is not afraid to play with language. Whether ‘pharmacopornographic regime’ will ever displace some of the worn-out terms of the American humanities lexicon, I don’t know, but I hope so.

In the end, Testo Junkie is not a book with which I entirely agree. There might be a bit too much collapsing of the aesthetic and the political. I share Preciado’s tastes for the queer avant-garde, but I also want a politics of the ordinary and the banal for transgender people, many of whom just want to live our lives without being cast as queer rebels. But such differences are productive. Over all, nothing has interested me as much as this book since the late ’70s, when a self-described "nasty street queen" took time out from cruising to translate some pages of Foucault, photocopy them, and press them into the eager hands of me and my friends. Because at the end of the day, the scholarship that matters might not be that which gets you a degree or a job, but that which enables you to go on living your life.3

McKenzie Wark is a professor of culture and media at the New School.



Why Does So Much of the World Speak English?

By Maya Jasanoff

“Best of the decade" is an imposing title, which most obviously summons up agenda-setting books like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Evicted, The New Jim Crow, or Why Nations Fail; or, within my discipline of history, monumental global and national syntheses like C. A. Bayly’s posthumous Remaking the Modern World, Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. My yearly "bests" this decade have been imaginative, heftily researched, sparklingly written first books by fresh talents, such as Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur, Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth, Our Sister Republics by Caitlin Fitz, and Paper Cadavers by Kirsten Weld.

James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth (Oxford University Press, 2011) did more than any single book to shake up how I thought about British imperial history (my subfield), and it has echoed through the years. The book offers a sweeping new answer to a question too often met with nationalist self-congratulation: Why did the British, as opposed to other powers, "rise" to hegemony in the long 19th century? Why does so much of the world speak English? Because of a "settler revolution," Belich replies, provoked by the ideological and technological shifts of the later 18th century, which launched vast numbers of emigrants from the British Isles to North America, the Antipodes, and parts of South America and Africa. Turning to China, Russia, France, and Iberia for contrast, Belich observes that "the Settler Revolution was by no means exclusively Anglophone," but it "remained Anglo-prone to the 1880s."
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Replenishing the Earth realigns the geography of modern imperial history. Belich has a gift for developing large-scale comparisons which have gone under-recognized or even unnoticed, and for spotting surprising connections. He knocks down the wall between British and U.S. historiographies — though he doesn’t pay enough attention to the persecution and extermination of native peoples. A map of what he calls the "British West" suggestively plunks Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in the middle of the Atlantic, between the previously populated realms of the British Isles and the North American Atlantic seaboard. Whether or not one buys Belich’s argument, it generates something of the same productively destabilizing effect as the memorable map in Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean, which inverts the north-south axis to demonstrate the dominance of Africa over the sea.

As a history of migration, Replenishing the Earth charted new ground in what turned out to be one of the most urgent historical and contemporary concerns of the 2010s. As a history of the "Anglo-World," it gained prophetic relevance for understanding the imagined community of the Brexiteers. But it’s as a study of the growth of megacities — their population structures, resource use, and relationship to agrarian hinterlands — that Replenishing the Earth ought most to resonate into the 2020s, by providing historical insight into an earth in the throes of catastrophic depletion.


Maya Jasanoff is a professor of history at Harvard University.