What Are Anthropologists Reading, Watching, and Listening To This Summer?

Deborah Thomas

As editor of American Anthropologist, much of my summer reading ends up being article submissions, from which I learn a ton! Aside from that, however, I am looking forward to reading Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment, by Han F. Vermeulen, which has been sitting on my desk for over a year. I plan to do a deep dive into the newer literature on abstractionism and experimentation in black expressive culture, including Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, by Anthony Reed; None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life by Stephen Best; and Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility by Ashon T. Crawley. I also plan to revisit Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was a Country, and to make my way through Marlon James’s new mythological dream epic, Black Leopard, Red Wolf.  Finally, I’m looking forward to delving into Saidiya Hartman’s new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. In terms of visual pleasures, I’m actually eager to see Toy Story 4 and Rocketman. The national release of The Chambermaid, by Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés, which explores the routines of a hotel housekeeper, and The Farewell, which features Akwkafina, also promise to be exciting. Plenty to catch up on via Netflix as well—thank goodness for summer!

Deborah A. Thomas is R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, and director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. She is editor of American Anthropologist.

Chip Colwell

Summer is a time to breathe, to take in fresh air and ideas. I’m doing this through reading and listening.

On my nightstand are several fiction and nonfiction books that I’ve wanted to read, some to invigorate my work and others to invigorate my soul.

First is Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption by Susan Devan Harness, and second is Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. Third is David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. The subject of Grann’s book pertains to my research, but he is a brilliant writer who has mountains to teach anthropologists about writing for the public.

To keep this anthropologist on his creative toes, I’m also reading The Vegetarian by Han Kang. When it’s not creeping me out, the book is helping me understand how to develop narrative structure and pull a reader along.

I’m also dedicating myself to finally catching up on all those weekly New Yorker magazines that have piled up. Seriously. This time I’m catching up. (Okay, probably not.)

As I’m knee deep in podcast land, developing the next season of SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human, I’m listening to all kinds of series that are new to me. I’m trying to listen to all of the anthropology podcasts out there, inter alia, The Dirt, Anthropod, and The Familiar Strange. But I’m also enjoying Against the Rules for its storytelling, Distillations for making a super boring subject (chemistry) super interesting, and Gastropod for showing me the science and history behind the foods I encounter every day.

With these books and podcasts, my summer is quite full and will take me and my spirit, I’m sure, peacefully and mindfully into the waiting autumn.

Chip Colwell is the senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the editor-in-chief of sapiens.org.

Ruth Behar

Summer is a time of indulgence. I catch up on TV series, poetry, and novels. The aim is for my heart to grow bigger as I learn what stories are circulating in the world.

I’m watching the romcom thriller You, about an aspiring woman writer who falls for a killer bookseller; Shitsel, the Israeli series about an ultra-Orthodox family living on the edge of modernity; and The Handmaid’s Tale, now moving into a crueler dystopia with glimmers of resistance and hope. When They See Us moved me to tears from start to finish: it tells the story of the Central Park Five case through a chilling exposé of the failure of our criminal justice system.

I recommend the podcast The Literary Life with Mitchell Kaplan, which features authors and editors. I recently listened to Dani Shapiro talk with Kaplan about her memoir, Inheritance, which ponders the meaning of kinship.

I conducted my first fieldwork in Spain shortly after the end of the Franco dictatorship, so I rushed to see the new documentary, The Silence of Others. About the victims and survivors of the dictatorship, whose suffering is finally being acknowledged, moments like the exhumation of a beloved father will take your breath away.

I plan to pour over my friend Richard Blanco’s new poetry collection, How To Love a Country. Chosen by Obama to be the inaugural poet in 2013, Richard’s work as a Cuban-American poet has grown, and he writes about immigration, gun violence, racism, and LGBTQ issues with strength and grace.

Keeping up with my passion for all things Cuban, I’ll be reading, in Spanish, Ana Veltfort’s new graphic memoir, Adiós Mi Habana. And always on the lookout for writers reflecting on identity and belonging, I’m going to delve into Bulgarian author Kapka Kassabova’s Twelve Minutes of Love, about the nomadic dance known as the tango, and Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, a timely book on refugees searching for home.

Ruth Behar is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Her books focus on her journeys to Spain, Mexico, and Cuba.

Mark Aldenderfer

I read all year long, but my summer list is conditioned by where I spend it—the remote Himalayas. These days, I bring an iPad mini that serves multiple roles and that is stocked with many books. Thankfully, we can eke out enough non-project solar wattage to keep the iPad going for the season. Reading things that don’t relate to my day job keeps me sane and connected to a wider world of ideas, trends, and yes, fun. So what are these books? In no particular order: This Storm by James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed “Demon Dog” of American literature. Trigger warning—Ellroy’s characters are often obscene, racist, and belligerent—and did I mention corrupt? Ellroy is a brilliant writer who tells tales of the darkest sides of human nature. Even if you loathe the characters, the tale wins. This, the second volume of L.A. Quartet is set at the start of WWII. You’ll need to read Perfidia, the first of this quartet, to get up to speed. Next up—the remaining three novels in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul seriesScarred, Cursed, and Killed. This is Scandinavian noir at its finest—dark, brooding, emotional, painful, but ultimately rewarding. Enger writes with the insights of an ethnographer but never loses the thread of narrative. The series follows Juul, a Norwegian journalist, who seeks answers to what he (and only he) believes is the murder of his young son. Finally, given what you’ve just read, you won’t believe I need to read this book—After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for Secular Age by Stephen Batchelor. Having worked in the Himalayas for all these years, you can’t fail to be saturated with Buddhism. Being a skeptic (and an anthropologist), it’s hard to accept orthodox or ecclesiastical Buddhism as relevant to my life. But what I know of Batchelor’s life tells me that reading this book will be worth the effort to build a spiritual non-spirituality. I’m going to try it.

Mark Aldenderfer is John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Merced.

Kristina Killgrove

I usually spend summers troweling and screening under the hot Mediterranean sun, which leaves little energy for reading. But this year, I have a “lab season” at home in North Carolina, where I will be awaiting isotope and DNA results from my research project at Oplontis (a Vesuvian villa site near Pompeii).

I’ve taught anthropology for over 15 years, but this summer I’m tackling a new topic: elementary school math. My rising fifth-grade daughter wants to advance her math skills beyond what her school offers, so we are working through a fun program called Beast Academy. Its comic book format engages her interest, and she likes the online component. I’ve already re-learned so much math that I’d forgotten—like working with exponents!

I’m dedicating the main chunk of my summer to finishing my book on Roman bioarchaeology. Since I’d love for it to appeal to academics and a general readership, I’m reading popular science books to get a feel for their language and style: Brian Switek’s new Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone; The Butchering Art by medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris; the funny and clever Quackery by physician Lydia Kang; and the amazingly titled Eat Me, a history of cannibalism by zoologist Bill Schutt.

Inspired by a conference I attended in June on ancient Greek and Roman foodways, which concluded with an ancient-style feast, I bought Emilie Raffa’s Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, and I am determined to learn how to bake bread. Cooking is the one hobby that I held onto through dissertating and then becoming faculty, so I’m usually trying to perfect some technique or recipe. My bread-baking statistics are: Starters killed, four. Loaves of bread made, zero.

I hope to see progress in my daughter’s math skills and my manuscript, but if all I accomplish is producing one decent-tasting loaf of jalapeño-cheddar sourdough, summer will be a success!

Kristina Killgrove is a Roman bioarchaeologist and writes a regular archaeology column for Forbes.

Cite as: Thomas, Deborah, Chip Colwell, Ruth Behar, Mark Aldenderfer, and Kristina Killgrove. 2019. “What Are Anthropologists Reading, Watching, and Listening To This Summer?” Anthropology News website, July 2, 2019. DOI: AN.10.1111/AN.1203

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