These ar the best choices and fairly we all need this help to pick random titles. There is sadly, way too much competition out there for our attention.
All good though.
It’s been a bad decade for politics, but a great decade for political theory. Three standouts for me were Shatema Threadcraft’s Intimate Justice, Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire, and Kathi Weeks’s The Problem With Work. But the scholarly book that affected me most powerfully this past decade was Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (Verso, 2018). It is a thrilling and formidable intervention into contemporary discussions of sex work, and settles the debate in favor of full and immediate global decriminalization. It does so without insisting that there is nothing troubling about sex work: about the psychosexual forces that lead men to buy it, or the economic forces that compel women to sell it.
When The Chronicle asked me to select the best scholarly book of the decade, it sounded like a fun exercise. When it came time to pick a book, I realized that I had taken on an impossible task. I also realized that I was on the brink of upsetting a lot of people..
To be classified as the best scholarly book of the decade, a work needs to have rearranged the way people thought, spoke, and acted in the most conservative of academic spaces and also in the last place reserved for critical and free debate: the black barbershop. If not discussed in those spaces and beyond, it cannot rank. Further, if it did not incite policy changes (on any level), then it cannot be the best.
It took the academy and the streets by storm, and forced the nation to reconsider the systems that allowed for blatant discrimination. It reflected the frustrations of so many black people, who in hair shops, churches, and community centers decried the expendability of black lives.
Last year, an editor at a London fashion magazine wrote to me to commission an essay "against coziness," about the compromised pleasures of beautifully tailored and extravagantly priced articles of casual clothing: sweatpants, bathrobes, and socks; onesies for grown men and women. I responded by asking if she had read Sianne Ngai’s glorious and intensely fun book, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2012), which names "cuteness" the dominant aesthetic of late capitalism and theorizes it as "the desire for an ever more intimate, ever more sensuous relation to objects already regarded as familiar and unthreatening," i.e., socks and onesies and other items we can "lovingly molest" — snuggly, squishy, soft, and small; vulnerable, domesticated, feminized, and apparently irrelevant to public culture. The editor replied that she had read the book, and, eager to memorialize her appreciation for it, added, "Sianne Ngai would be a perfect name for our vision board!"
Few scholarly books published in the last decade, or any decade, can compare to the late Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2016) for its combination of analytic brilliance, erudition, ambition, and romantic tragedy. This monumental book is no less than a comprehensive rethinking of the nature of Islam, understood as a "historical and human phenomenon" that both makes Muslims and is made by them.
When I told my colleague James Scott that, in beginning a new project on the history of humane warfare and its costs, I was exploring an analogy with the project of improving the slaughter of nonhuman animals, he asked me if I had read Every Twelve Seconds (Yale University Press, 2013), by his former student Timothy Pachirat.
It is notoriously easy to mock analytic philosophy for its willingness to question just about any assumption. Is water in fact H2O? Are we just brains in vats? Should we tell the Nazi at the door where the Jews are hiding? Yet this seeming radical openness, Irad Kimhi argues in his long-awaited Thinking and Being (Harvard University Press, 2018), disguises one of analytic philosophy’s gravest failures: its refusal to question the nature of thought.
“Iam a man in love with nature. I am an eco-addict." Thus begins J. Drew Lanham’s extraordinary memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed, 2016). So far, good enough. The surprise, however, follows immediately after: Lanham is African American; he is an ornithologist and a lover of wild things in a world in which most readers expect nature-loving to be a white endeavor. Lanham explains how much he wishes there were other black scientists at the ornithology meetings he attends. He tells of being stalked by suspicious whites when he looks for birds in the American countryside, where blacks are not supposed to be. He explains his idea that reparations for slavery could be ecological, restoring the landscapes earned by African American sweat. Environmental integrity would reap major benefits not just in the moment but for our children, and their children.
Christopher Reed’s Bachelor Japanists (Columbia University Press, 2016) may not be the best scholarly book of the past decade — there have been many masterpieces of scholarship on topics of urgent importance — but it is the book that afforded me the greatest pleasure. I read it very slowly, so as to savor each detail and each precise, well-judged formulation. It is a book that took me out of my world — out of my anxiety about the present and the future — and transported me to three different, distant eras, reconstituting for me the aesthetic rapture and, sometimes, bad taste that defined the obsessive relation of certain Westerners to the culture of a Japan they didn’t quite understand.
What makes Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie (The Feminist Press, 2013) the standout book of the decade for me is that it is so singularly an original work in both form and content. It is Preciado just on the cusp of transition, in a liminal space between genders. There is writing here that has all the wonder and surprise of that passage into the unknown of one’s own body.
“Best of the decade" is an imposing title, which most obviously summons up agenda-setting books like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Evicted, The New Jim Crow, or Why Nations Fail; or, within my discipline of history, monumental global and national syntheses like C. A. Bayly’s posthumous Remaking the Modern World, Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. My yearly "bests" this decade have been imaginative, heftily researched, sparklingly written first books by fresh talents, such as Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur, Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth, Our Sister Republics by Caitlin Fitz, and Paper Cadavers by Kirsten Weld.