Thursday, April 16, 2009

Top Ten Academic Books

Alright, top ten lists have been all the rage on the internets recently. What got it started was Steve Walt's list of top ten books every IR student should read (which, inexplicably, left off number one on my list below). Dan Drezner followed up with a list of top ten worst books in IR (so, I guess, it's a bottom ten list). My friend Lindsey then came up with a list of twenty books every IR student should read, including some non-IR books.

Well, I am nothing if not a slave to trends set by others. So I will be giving you three lists: best academic books, best non-fiction books outside academia, and best fiction books. I will start today with my favorite academic books ever, and include in parantheses which discipline they come from. Keep in mind, these are not the greatest works ever written, but the greatest works ever written that I have read. Also, these are in no particular order, except for number one, which remains my favorite book.

1. Alex Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (IR)

I can only presume that Wendt's omission on Walt's list is some sort of Neorealist smackdown to the godfather of social constructivist thought in IR. Whatever the reason, I can not imagine any IR student -- irrespective of intellectual persuasion -- not reading this book. You should not be allowed to leave graduate school without having read this book three times: the first time to familiarize yourself with Wendt's prose, the second to actually begin to understand the contours of his argument, and the third to realize what a brilliant piece of scholarship it is.

Wendt's central insights -- that material structure in and of itself implies nothing about the way anarchy works, and that ideas, identities and discourse are constitutive to interests -- are incredibly powerful, and much-needed in the literature.

2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Comparative Politics, IR, Sociology)

You cannot have a discussion about nationalism without starting with Benny Anderson's canonical work. End of story. It's also very non-academic in its prose -- anyone can read it in a couple of sittings.

3. John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (IR)

I agree with almost none of the central premises in this book (except for the "stopping power of water", I guess). But it remains one of the central works in the field for its clarity of thought, simple, accessible and lyrical writing style, and its honest and worthy attempt to explain a lot with very little. One of the great works in IR theory. Bonus points because the author really liked my MA thesis (and will hopefully feel the same way about the dissertation).

4. Eugen Weber, Peasants Into Frenchmen (Comparative Politics, History)

Don't let the boring subtitle ("The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914") fool you. This is one of the most thrilling an exhilirating reads you will find on the role of the state in building nationalism, on French history, on the ways in which national militaries and school curricula can impact the ways in which citizens think of themselves and their country, and much, much more. Its central contribution lies in showing how the notion of identity is so malleable -- Weber shows how "French" citizens of the Republic in the countryside did not really consider themselves "French"...until the state partook in very deliberate and conscious processes of state-building nationalism. And it's beautifully written.

5. Oskar Verkaaik, Migrants and Militants (Anthropology)

For number five, we're coming home. Well, not exactly, but close enough. Verkaaik describes the ways by which violence can be "fun" for its participants by analyzing the MQM and its young cadres in Hyderabad. He shows how violence -- when it is bottom up rather than top down -- can be a bonding experience for young males, and that it isn't necessarily a malevolent thing for its practioners but more about friendship and camaraderie. It also is an excellent book for people who have kinda/sorta heard of the MQM but want to learn more -- the history of the organization and the political party is superb.

6. Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (IR)

The book on military strategy, and strategy more generally. It's kind of funny that the security side of IR hasn't really improved on Schelling -- maybe because you can't. Also happens to the best written book on this list, and I suspect most people's lists. Just a beautifully written book.

7. Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia (History)

What I love about Jalal's book is that she is an historian basically writing as a political scientist. An interpretivist political scientist, to be sure, but a political scientist nonetheless. She also happens to have a very compelling argument for the reasons for Pakistan's democratic deficit relative to India. Essentially, her thesis is that at independence and in the years shortly after, Muslim League representatives did not have roots in the areas that became Pakistan the way that Congress politicians did in India. Consequently, politicians in Pakistan became increasingly reliant on the bureaucracy and (gulp) the military to sow order and peace, and establish a state. This led to an imbalanced relationship between the bureaucracy/military elites on the one hand, and civilian leaders on the other. The rest, as they say, is history.

8. Benjamin Valentino, Final Solutions (IR)

Without a doubt, the most gruesome book on this list. When the subtitle of your book is "Mass Killings and Genocide in the 20th century", you've earned that title. The scariest thing about Valentino's research is that it becomes appallingly clear how easy it is to commit genocide: you don't need fancy weapons (Rwanda's was done by and large with machetes) and you don't need an entire society behind you (Cambodia's was carried out by a fairly small number of people). You just need a small cadre of leaders who have tried to simply get rid of an unwanted population from their territory, and failed. So they try the next logical step: killing them all.

9. Richard Overy, Russia's War (History)

In terms of lives lost, no war holds a candle to the Soviet-German war on the Eastern front in World War II. I will let Wiki take over temporarily:
It was the largest theatre of war in history and was notorious for its unprecedented ferocity, destruction, and immense loss of life. It bore the bulk of the Holocaust as the site of all extermination camps, death marches, ghettos, and most pogroms. More people fought and died on the Eastern Front than in all other theatres of World War II combined. Various figures average a total number of 70,000,000 dead because of WWII; with over 30 million dead, many of them civilians, the Eastern Front represents well over one-third of this total, and has been called a war of extermination. It resulted in the destruction of the Third Reich, the partition of Germany and the rise of the Soviet Union as a military and industrial superpower.

Think about that again: more people fought and died on the Eastern Front than in all other theatres of World War II combined. Look at the number dead: thirty million. And no book describes this war -- in loose, classical prose -- as well as Overy's.

10. Donald Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Comparative Politics)

If you want to write about ethnic war, you start with reading Horowitz. If you want to think about ethnic politics in multi-cultural and multi-lingual states, you start with reading Horowitz. If you want to talk about the ways in which different ethnic groups live next to each other, you start with reading Horowitz. Nuff said.

What about you, readers? What are the great academic books you've read?


Augustus Fink-Nottle said...

I'm a big fan of Overy and you're right he highlights a portion of the war that is oft forgotten. History is written by the victors and post WWII and the Cold War that leaves just the West. The truly brutal part of the Eastern Front was the complete disregard for any conventions and laws of war. I've never quite understood how laws can be followed in war in any case; it seems an oxymoron. I do understand you want decent treatment for your soldiers that are captured. But if ever there was a total war, an assault on every aspect of life on a scale never before imagined - it was the Eastern Front from 1941 - 1945.

I don't know if you've read (or like) John Keegan and his plaid biographies of both World Wars. There is no prose but both are described very well in their entirety.

Lastly, I'm reading Battlecry of Freedom by James McPherson. It is a time period in American history where I've known little but again the extent of research is astounding. I don't think the US Civil War gets due credit for being such a master-piece of political wrangling, war and for influencing the US and thereby much of the world the way it did. It is also the origin of the word 'shoddy'. Bet you didn't know that.

Fatima said...

Your genocide book listing reminded me of a book edited by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan called "The Spectre of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective" which despite (or because of?) its gruesome subject is a fascinating read.

I've recently read Thomas Metcalf's "Ideologies of the Raj" which is part of the Cambridge series on the History of India and it is a really well written history of the nineteenth century in India, and the complexity of the British political mindset.

Another great book is a small collection of essays edited by G.H.R. Tillotson, "Paradigms of Indian Architecture: Space and Time in Representation and Design" which is really on the ball when it comes to using visual/material culture as a starting point to ask deeper questions about history and society following new methodologies of art history.

That's all I can think of right now in terms of great books. If we're talking about essential reading then I have to include various theorists because us art historians live and die by Foucault, Winckelmann, Derrida, etc. etc. even when we vehemently disagree with them.

Anonymous said...

To chime in, I will highly recommend ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins which was part of required reading in my Managerial accounting class. It is very relevant in today’s economic scenario and an answer to why less charismatic leaders often produce better long-term results than their more charismatic counterparts because they “put the right people in the right seat on the bus.”Another book which I enjoyed in my organization behavior class was Cultural intelligence: people skills for global business by David C. Thomas, Kerr Inkson. Everybody has heard of IQ, the measure of the ability to reason and EQ—emotional intelligence but not about CQ, cultural intelligence which is a new idea that incorporates the capability to interact effectively across different cultures. Even though, I have an engineering background, I have greatly enjoyed Ayesha Jalal’s books.

Kalsoom said...

Thanks for the tip about Valentin's Final Solutions. I've always been interested (academically) in the phenomenon and psychology behind genocide. Will check it out!

Rabia said...

Thanks for the recommendations!

here's my list:

1. Thucycidides - History of Peloponnesian Wars
2. Tacitus - Annals of Imperial Rome
3. Hobbes - Leviathan
4. Eichmann in Jerusalm - Hannah Arendt
5. Ethnicity Islam and Nationalism: Muslim Politics in the NWFP 1937-47 by Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah

Sputnik said...

I think we've already discussed most of these books in person, so I'll just say I think you have a solid list (especially with the ones that overlap with my list) and that you should read Overy's other book, Why the Allies Won.

Ahsan said...


Yeah, I need to read that McPherson book as part of my research on secessions. Hopefully in a week or two.

Fatima, Kalsoom, Rabia and Sputnik:

Thanks for those recs.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that the price of mentioning my academic books (global business )meant an exclusion from the thank you list.I thought business books are also a viable part of academics.