Summer reading lists vs. What Actually Happened

Ah, summer reading lists: Elaborate plans for personal enrichment and literary sophistication made in the spring and carried out… when? It’s easy to find tons of summer reading lists and recommendations out there every year — especially in the Northern hemisphere, where it’s actually summer (there’s snow falling in Canberra atm, remember). But what happens after those lists are actually made?

I ended up reading a lot this summer. Not as much as I ended up playing video games, or working on image permissions for a book I’m editing. But I did read a lot. I just didn’t read what I thought I was going to read or was planning on reading.

What I was going to read

My eyes are always bigger than my stomach, text-wise, but realistically I was hoping to finish the summer reading these books:

Bruno Latour in Pieces: An Intellectual Biography, Henning Schmidgen

There are lots of secondary sources out there on Latour, but I was particularly interested in this one because it focused on Latour’s early years, including his time in Africa and education in Burgundy. Finally, I thought, someone read Charles Peguy so I won’t have to.

Meeting The Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Karen Barad

Anyone who writes an article entitled “Nature’s Queer Performativity” deserves a look. Especially since I’m trying to get back in touch with physical sciences, but in a non-stupid way.

Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography, Thomas Hylland Eriksen

I have a long-term interest in the history of anthropology and Norwegians, so this book by Norwegian Historian Of Anthropology Thomas Hylland Eriksen seemed a natural.

Unearthing Conflict: Corporate Mining, Activism, and Expertise in Peru, Fabiana Li

I study corporate mining but Latin America is the area I know the least about. A revised dissertation on the topic published by Duke is right in the center of my interests, especially since it is coming out of UC Davis, an increasingly prominent department in anthropology. Also, ‘Fabiana Li’ is a really cool name.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter, Terrence Deacon

Technically an anthropologist, Deacon is the real inspiration behind How Forests Thinkwhich really impressed me and made me want to go deeper. This is also part of my ‘getting back to the sciences’ theme.

… and what actually happened

So how did I do? Well… uh…

I did actually read the Barth biography, which I reviewed for the blog and really enjoyed. I also got about a third of the way through the Deacon, which is pretty good given that the book is 624 pages long.  I read the first chapter of the Li, and the first two of the Barad, and a quarter of the Schmidgen. They were all good books, and I’d recommend them all (thought the Schmidgen is much lighter on context than I was hoping for). But I ended up moving on to other things however, mostly because the other things were more pressing and easier to read. So what did I actually read?

Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography, Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Yes. you see, some list items do come true!

Alchemy in the Rain Forest: Politics, Ecology, and Resilience in a New Guinea Mining Area, Jerry Jacka

My friend and colleague Jerry Jacka did fieldwork in the same place as me at the same time as me, and this is his book. It’s a really accessible ethnography about of beliefs about place in Porgera, our shared valley. I have complex theoretical disagreements with some things he said, but that’s true of most people I meet, so don’t let that put you off! Recommended for lower-level undergrad ethnography courses.

Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Misty Copeland and Charisse Jones

I am teaching this text in an undergraduate class how to be successful and learn new things, and I wanted to make sure my students got a taste of the performing arts, not just business and STEM. Beautifully written by Misty Copeland (the the greatest African American ballerina of her generation) and Charisse Jones (who turned interviews into effortless, page-turning prose), this is a rags to riches story that is as much about inspiring teachers as it is one woman’s quest to excel. I’m hoping the racial dimensions of Copeland’s struggles will help my students understand what race is like on the mainland.

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, Marilyn Johnson

This book got so much press from everyone except anthropologists! Ivy is a successful nonfiction author who brings quirky corners of the world to life, and this time her target is archaeologists. With a chapter on John Shea and another on the impossibility of the academic job market, this a good one to give to aspiring trowel monkeys. Also, if you don’t actually know what archaeology is (tsk tsk) this book will enable you to drink successfully with people who only talk about use-wear analysis.

Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn

I’ve always felt that there was a deep connection between anthropologists and con men, one that redeemed one of us or damned the other — I’m not sure which. Kirk’s memoir of befriending a murderer masquerading as a Rockefeller is written in prose beautiful enough to belong in literary fiction. It’s a meditation partially on how the murderer did it, but also Kirn’s own remarkably fracked up life and why he allowed himself to be duped. I was hoping for less denunciation of Rockefeller and more discussion of his tactics. But reading this a metaphor of fieldwork — but who is the studying who? — was pretty interesting. Your mileage may vary.

Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War, Peter Mandler

Mandler’s closely researched prosopography of Mead, Bateson, and Geoffrey Gorer during World War II is one of the few books on anthropology during this period. A historian of national character studies and not an anthropologist, Mandler is blissfully free from the complex baggage that most anthropologists bring to discussions of Mead. This extremely detailed account presents Mead as a flawed but decent person making complex choices in challenging times. Bateson and Gorer come across as much more loser, though. If you’re serious about the history of the discipline, diving into this one is a good idea. If you’re looking for a light read on Mead, skip it.

Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent, Susan Seymour

Cora Du Bois’s name should be on everyone’s lips as one of the greatest anthropologist of her generation, and perhaps of all time. Her life story is unbelievable: Anthropologist, spy-master, lesbian, confidante of Julia Childs, and the first female full professor at Harvard. At long last she finally receives the attention she deserves in this biography from her student Susan Seymour. Seymour’s strong personal desire to tell this story — and, I suspect, her editor’s desire to get Du Bois’s life on record — has made this book a reality. Seymour is not a master biographer, but she’s certainly competent, her research is solid, and Du Bois’s story tells itself. Readable and especially worthwhile for the way it puts Du Bois back on the map as an inspiring role model for all anthropologists today, male or female, queer or straight.




Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at