No real reviews here, but a short list on what I’ve been reading this Summer, and how I generally feel about the books or articles. What have you been reading? Anything I should know about? Let me know in the comments.
I have already mentioned the great new collection of anthropological essays on rural Cambodia, edited by John Marston here, and am just now through the first chapter of Margaret Slocomb’s exciting new Economic History of Cambodia in the Twentieth Century, but I haven’t only been reading about Cambodia.
First off, I must confess that a possibly embarrassing amount of my fiction-reading time this Summer plowing through the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels by George R. R. Martin. They’re surprisingly compelling, though the decision to break the narrative into two chunks in volumes 4 and 5 was a poor one, in my opinion. Some interesting religion stuff going on in the narrative as well – an ambiguous peace between the dominant Southern cult of the Gods of the Seven and the Northern cult of the faceless gods of trees, and the arrival of a manichean religion of the “Red God” from the foreign lands to the East, which threatens to further destabilize the cultural situation. I also read Robopocalypse, Bossypants, the new Malcolm X book by Manning Marable (RIP), and Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, all of which I would recommend.
But what about academic reading?
Bruce Lincoln’s new book, Religion, Empire, & Torture: The case of Achamenian Persia, with a postscript on Abu Ghraib, is his best book since Theorizing Myth, or possibly even Authority, and that says a lot. This book focuses on what Lincoln does best: close readings of central texts, and the organization of those texts and their interpretations into a compelling central, and moral narrative. By focusing almost entirely not on contemporary political society, but on ancient Achaemenian society (a term he problematizes usefully early in the book), Lincoln makes a number of interventions in our history and understanding of this period, without requiring enormous amounts of background of the reader. Does religion generate and nourish imperial desire, horrific torture, and constant war? Lincoln makes a compelling case out of the Achaemenian texts. Essential Reading.
David L McMahan’s The making of Buddhist modernism is a welcome addition to the literature on Buddhism, modernism, and the surprisingly dense and convoluted relationships that constitute them. Highly recommended.
Another important contribution to the same literature is Anne M. Blackburn’s fantastic new Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka, which focuses on similar histories, with a different approach and a more restricted scope (Sri Lanka). Essential Reading.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book on Buddhist philosophy as engaging, compelling, or simply fun to read as the great Richard Gombrich’s recent What the Buddha Thought. Long-time critics of Gombrich’s assumptions of plausibility for many aspects of the ancient Pali canon will find no better responses here, but they are clearly stated and laid out. Even those formidable critics, however, will find much to admire in this great book. Essential Reading.
Manuel Delanda’s latest contribution to the anglicization of Deleuze’s thought, which he has been tackling in various field-bound studies (cf. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, e.g.) is perhaps the best yet that I have read from him: Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. This new book focuses – at least at the beginning – narrowly on the meaning of a scientific ontology, and reworks what we should assume is compellingly throughout. By the time he’s done, he has stretched the reader’s mind considerably, though I think it would be very hard to alter one’s approaches to subject material based on Delanda; you would instead have to completely adopt his approach. Inspiring.
I just finished Peg LeVine’s book, Love and Dread in Cambodia: Weddings, births, and ritual harm under the Khmer Rouge, thanks to the suggestion of a mentor of mine. It’s got some quirks that may annoy some readers, such as the use (both in terms of images but also self-description in text) her own artwork and its creation, but I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the effect of the Khmer Rouge period on contemporary Cambodians. This idea of continued trauma in Cambodia is a widespread one, and obviously conveys a particular reality, but too many authors have assumed too many things about how trauma appears, and have ignored the cultural-boundedness of traumatic expression. LeVine doesn’t do that, and is instead resolutely and bravely able to confront the realities of her conversation partners, instead of succumbing too easily to one narrative or another. Highly recommended.
There have been others, and other reading, but why would I tell you about anything other than the good stuff? I haven’t read anything atrocious this Summer, which is the only other reason I’d mention a piece of writing here – in order to warn you away.
Stuff I’m reading or getting to soonish, I hope:
Tzvetan Todorov’s Memory as a remedy for evil.
Manuel Delanda’s A New Philosophy of society: assemblage theory and social complexity.
David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years.
Jean Michaud and Tim Forsyth, eds. Moving mountains: ethnicity and livelihoods in HIghland China, Vietnam, and Laos
So again, what have you been reading? How was it?