As readers, we too often take for granted that the best books of the year are released by the Big 5 publishers. But the truth is that great works of academic writing many times outlast non-academic works when it comes to shaping a given conversation. With this in mind, here are ten must-read academic books slated for 2015, on themes ranging from Islam and liberalism to veterans’ and migrants’ rights.
Islam in Liberalism, Joseph A. Massad (University of Chicago)
It’s hard to imagine a more necessary and timely book. Massad’s work is likely to become the sine qua non of studies on how Islam and liberalism interface in politics and culture. At a crucial historical moment, it takes a hard look at Islam and the liberal — and ironically Christian — mission to purify it.
The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura, Mari Yoshihara (trans.) (Columbia)
This book caused a stir in Japan when it was released in 2008. Written by the unimpeachably cool Minae Mizumura, whose update of Wuthering Heights (A True Novel) was recently published by Other Press, the book questions what sensibilities — of sounds, smell, thought, vision — are lost when a single language dominates others. In this case, of course, that language is English, and Mizumura can be acerbic, hilarious, and, well, correct in her critique of those who wield it.
The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, Mark Greif (Princeton)
This ambitious book by Mark Greif, one of the original founders of the journal n+1, is not on bookshelves, but it has already received the strangest non-review of the year from Leon Wieseltier, who called it “[a]n important book, a brilliant book, an exasperating book,” presumably because it doesn’t recognized its own critical value. With such an epic, Hobsbawmian title, what is Greif driving at? The book works to uncover a major discourse in American letters, a largely postwar dialogue about the human (or posthuman) condition. It’s a formidable project on Greif’s part, one that could change the story we tell about intellectual politics in the 20th century. Certainly it isn’t a harbinger of “the new modesty” we’re seeing elsewhere in literary criticism.
The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, Frank Pasquale (Harvard)
If you’re like me, you have crazy friends who espouse a weird theory of “black boxes” that sounds less like a theory and more like a glitchy video game played exclusively in the brain. But Frank Pasquale’s new book on the secret algorithms that motor the monstrous heart of big data is a timely work of non-fiction, a “true conspiracy” about regulatory weakness in the face of technological hubris and greed.
Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Caroline Levine (Princeton)
This impressive, innovative book connects art and politics by way of forms. It argues that “forms organize not only works of art but also political life — and our attempts to know both art and politics.” And it covers a range of disciplines, from design theory to contemporary television.
The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Josiah Ober (Princeton History of the Ancient World) (Princeton)
There may be few classicists among you, but this book could turn out to be Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for classical Greece.
How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, Beth Shapiro (Princeton)
Some of the best conversations I’ve had in recent months have come about while discussing de-extinction. The concept is simple: should we clone extinct animals, Jurassic Park-style, from found genetic material? How do we do it? What would the impact be on the environment? Shapiro makes it clear that we should have this discussion now because the future of de-extinction is real and coming fast.
The Emotional Politics of Racism: How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Colorblindness, Paula Ioanide (Stanford)
This book does exactly what it purports to do: it shows, methodically, how emotions overwhelm facts in four case studies: “the police brutality case of Abner Louima; the exposure of torture at Abu Ghraib; the demolition of New Orleans public housing units following Hurricane Katrina; and a proposed municipal ordinance to deny housing to undocumented immigrants in Escondido, CA.” Crucially, too, it looks at how these failures reinforce social welfare cuts and mass incarceration. And most importantly: it looks for new ways forward.
Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran, John M. Kinder (University of Chicago)
No matter how much attention the problem of veterans gets, it isn’t enough. Rarely, too, is the problem posed as a matter of disability. The advantage of Kinder’s approach is that warfare, and its effect on the body, becomes a historical fact. War doesn’t fade into the historical background for someone who is disabled by it for life.
Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants, Ayten Gundogdu (Oxford University Press)
This book on the migrant’s “right to have rights” looks at political theory, legal theory, sociology, anthropology, philosophy — the list goes on — to determine the social and political condition of statelessness in the 21st century.