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25 October 2023

The New Statesman’s best books of the academic presses

Our choice of the highlights from the universities in 2023.

By New Statesman

Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will by Kevin J Mitchell
Princeton University Press, 352pp, £25

Humans are not, says Kevin Mitchell, the playthings of predestination. Millennia of evolution means that our nervous systems have given us the wherewithal both to imagine and to predict. Mitchell explains how this power came about and why it matters.

The Subversive Seventies by Michael Hardt
Oxford University Press, 304pp, £21.99

From gay and black liberationists to anti-nuclear protesters, the 1970s was the decade in which established authority found itself everywhere under threat. It also offers, according to the author of this survey, Michael Hardt, lessons for the political radicals of today.

[See also: How the Barclay brothers built and wrecked an empire]

On the Scale of the World: The Formation of Black Anticolonial Thought by Musab Younis
University of California Press, 286pp, £24

Between the two world wars, black intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic developed a framework of anti-colonial ideas that were applicable from the United States to Africa and which, says Musab Younis, provided new ways of thinking about race, nation and empire.

Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times by Samuel Moyn
Yale University Press, 240pp, £20

During the Cold War, says the political and historical thinker Samuel Moyn, liberalism lost its way. In the works of liberal intellectuals such as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality were sacrificed to the primacy of personal freedom. Today’s crisis of liberalism is the result but, as Moyn seeks to show, the damage can still be undone.

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The Strauss Dynasty and Habsburg Vienna by David Wyn Jones
Cambridge University Press, 300pp, £30

According to David Wyn Jones, “the Strauss brand was more important than any one individual”. In this lucid and often revealing joint biography ­– there are affairs and rivalries alongside the music ­– he shows how Johann and his three sons, Johann, Josef and Eduard, were at the centre of Habsburg cultural life for more than a century.  

Penning Poison: A History of Anonymous Letters by Emily Cockayne
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £20

Abuse will always find an outlet and Emily Cockayne, in her revealing history of poison pen letters, uncovers cases from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries. They may be diverting to the modern reader but they also reveal both the motivations of the senders and their effect on the recipients – whether individuals or communities.  

[See also: How the centre right was lost]

The French philosopher Manon Garcia suggests that far from extinguishing a flaring erotic charge, consent adds to the pleasure of sex. She argues it is not a legal nicety that leads to ethical sex but rather to better sex, because it does away with unwanted male domination and grants both parties autonomy and dignity.

Volcanic: Vesuvius in the Age of Revolutions by John Brewer
Yale University Press, 544pp, £30

It was only when excavations began in 1738 that the scale of destruction unleashed by Vesuvius on Pompeii and Herculaneum began to be understood. The results fascinated geologists and antiquarians, artists and tourists. In the age of revolutions, says the historian John Brewer, the volcano was the perfect metaphor for the changes that were about to transform European and American society.

A Myriad of Tongues: How Languages Reveal Differences in How We Think by Caleb Everett
Harvard University Press, 288pp, £24.95

Different languages, according to the anthropologist Caleb Everett, represent more than alternative ways of saying the same thing. Languages embody different concepts too, and their vocabularies can contain ideas that are alien to those without the linguistic key. Words for such things as colours and smells carry extra meanings and nuances.

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris by Colin Jones
Oxford University Press, 592pp, £25

The historian Colin Jones has a gift for examining events afresh. Here it is the 24 hours in which Maximilien Robespierre tumbled from being the French Revolution’s most feared ideologue to an outlaw who tried, and failed, to escape the guillotine. Jones has scoured his sources to produce a detailed account of this pivotal moment. 

[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers’s Cuddy as the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize winner]

Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko, translated by Michael M Naydan and Alla Perminova
Polity, 200pp, £20

This is, by necessity, only a partial biography of the Ukrainian leader and his story and status may yet change over the coming months and years. Nevertheless, this account by a Ukrainian political journalist deftly charts the transformation of a former comedian into a reforming president and then, swiftly, into a charismatic wartime leader and global figure.

As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West by Guido Alfani
Princeton University Press, 440pp, £30

In this study of 1,000 years of economic inequality, the historian Guido Alfani looks not just at the means by which wealth was accumulated and kept – both largely unchanged ­– but also at the attitudes of less fortunate members of society towards the rich. Croesus-like riches have been seen as a sin, an obligation and a fact of life.

Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind by Mike Jay
Yale University Press, 320pp, £20

The best way for pre-20th-century scientists, writers and analysts to understand the effects of mind-altering drugs was to self-experiment, as Sigmund Freud did with cocaine and William James with nitrous oxide. Mike Jay’s wide-ranging study looks at what was found  – from psychology to modernism – once the doors of perception had been opened. 

The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought by Wang Hui, edited by Michael Gibbs Hill
Harvard University Press, 992pp, £65.95

If the writing of this intellectual history was a daunting feat of scholarship, so is its translation into English nearly two decades after it was first published in China. In it, Wang Hui roams over more than 1,000 years of the country’s past, finding the links between its schools of thought that underlay the transition from empire to nation state.

The Parliamentary Battle Over Brexit by Meg Russell and Lisa James
Oxford University Press, 416pp, £25

Brexit was supposed to restore the sovereignty of parliament but instead ended up severely damaging its reputation. This clear-eyed study of the events of 2016 – based on wide research and interviews – lays out the arguments,  machinations and drama that took place within the  Palace of Westminster as the referendum approached.

[See also: Italo Calvino’s imaginary worlds]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War