I’ve promised (threatened?) to do something like this before, but I’m really committed now. I’ve been meaning to sit down with my bookshelves and go through them very seriously, to re-examine books I’ve read in the past and read newer books that I haven’t read or have read cursorily. I’m going to combine this with cataloging my shelves in the office and at home with Readerware, and finally alphabetizing my shelves. (This will doubtless disappoint a generation of students who’ve gotten used to me looking distractedly for a book I’ve recommended by trying to remember where I last saw its distinctive spine.)
These aren’t going to be book reviews, more like book notes, commentaries, short observations.
Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back
Useful, accessible discussion of the problem of “unintended consequences” in the history of technology, but he’s less interested in what he calls “reverse revenge” effects, when the unintended consequences of new technological systems are largely positive or beneficial. In many ways, the target here is not technologies per se, but high modernist ideologies of technopolitical change, the hubristic belief that it is possible to comprehensively understand and manage all the consequences of technological change in advance of undertaking such change. (A useful book for some research projects in my History of the Future course.) A bit lightweight when it comes to questions of causality, of the character of systems and networks. Might make a good introduction to a course that was then going to go deeper into that sort of territory.
Paul Nugent, Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens on the Ghana-Togo Frontier
I may complain about the dominance of the monograph from time to time, but this is the kind of book that makes you appreciate just how important a function the monograph serves in scholarly communities. Some monographs are plodding and obvious, but this book is full of original insights and important data within the context of 20th Century African history. Its benefits are most obvious within the context of specialized scholarly inquiry, but it might even be a surprisingly engaging read for a more generalist audience with an interest in African history and some knowledge of the standard or received wisdom about colonial and postcolonial African history. The title is misleading in that it makes the book sound like an exceptionally narrow account of a very particular subject, but in a way, what Nugent is offering is a comprehensive history of the colonial era outside of the three dominant historiographical paradigms. Frequently Africanists do histories that are defined either by nations, ethnic groups or a single major social category: a history of Ghana, a history of the Ewe, a history of workers or women. Occasionally we write instead about institutions. What Nugent’s done here is write about places, practices, institutions, but in ways that subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) reorder the way people in my field talk about nations, ethnicities, social groups or institutions with implications for our understanding of the overall history of European colonialism in Africa.