The best books in the humanities

The best books in the humanities have the structure of a really cool grad seminar. They bring together a compelling reading list, striking the right balance between cutting edge “cool” stuff, stuff you know you should read but maybe haven’t yet, and stuff you’ve never heard of but are intrigued by. Influential, agenda-setting books going back decades have had this format: Of Grammatology, Gender Trouble, Homo Sacer, The Ticklish Subject, Our Aesthetic Categories, etc.

I don’t think this is a bad thing at all, and indeed it’s a pretty good standard. Every author in the academic humanities should be asking: could I base a fun syllabus on the bibliography for this book? Would grad students want to take it, even if it seemed tangential to their research? After all, the audience for academic books is basically grad students — current grad students, aspiring grad students, and former grad students.

Though the mainstream media always tries to shame academics for having a narrow audience, we should embrace our niche, which is a uniquely vibrant and engaged one. And we should embrace our methodology, which is not to make rigorous arguments (narrowly conceived), not to marshall exhaustive evidence toward an inexorable conclusion — but to curate a fruitful seminar, to cross-breed the seeds in a way that will let a thousand surprising flowers bloom.

4 thoughts on “The best books in the humanities

  1. There is also the genre of good humanities book, like Allen Shelton’s Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, that would justifiably creep and disturb everybody who signed up.

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