“How did this all begin?”
This is the biography and history bit. I know my C. W. Mills. In one sense it all began at Carnoustie High School with an impressive clutch of failed (‘no mention’) Highers in 1987. Then, that same year, it kind of started again with a temporary summer job as a labourer working on the same building site as my dad. I vowed to return to school after those eight exhausting weeks of manual labour and pass my (many) Higher resits. And from then I just kind of journeyed from one University to another and never really left Higher Education. So here we are, and it’s 2016. One thing; I suppose I should really apologise in advance by saying I’ve taken a very, very broad definition of what constitutes a ‘sociology book’ for this tricky exercise. Indeed, most of these four texts are arguably more social anthropology than sociology (sorry!). Anyway, what matters most is that they all made me see the world in a much more informed and nuanced kind of way, and that still counts for something I think. Plus, in an ‘age of interdisciplinarity’, all the social science subject boundaries are collapsing and incredibly porous anyway… eh, right?
Judith Okely (1983) The Traveller-Gypsies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
During my undergraduate years at Paisley ‘Tech and at Dundee University (yes, I was nomadic even then; my first two years were spent in the west coast salt mines of Paisley and then the last two years of my degree, skulking in the east coast sea caves of Dundee) I was exposed to many amazing books and people. Being taught by passionate, funny, engaged lecturers – such as Dr Gerry Mooney and Dr Richard Dunphy to name but two – was genuinely inspiring. Similarly, reading the work of Pierre Bourdieu, bell hooks, Karl Marx, Iris Young et al made a profound impact on me. Words mattered and could change things! And such a way with words as well! However, no one book really stood out for me during this time – I just devoured everything really. At Edinburgh University, where I went to study for my PhD in the early 1990s, it was all a bit different. For one thing, I was fortunate to have Professor Mike Adler, Professor Adrian Sinfield and Professor Judith Okely all supervising me (well, at one point or another, but that’s a completely different story!). The point is this: the reading at Edinburgh was a lot more focused and directed; mainly social policy related in fact. However, Judith, a very distinguished social anthropologist, gave me a copy of her own ethnography, The Traveller-Gypsies, and after reading it my thesis direction, so to speak, was utterly clarified. Even now, many years on, I still use and refer to this book in both my teaching and my writing. For those reasons alone, I think, it has to be one of my four books.
Hortense Powdermaker (1950) Hollywood the Dream Factory, Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
Would you not just *die* to have a name as good as Hortense Powdermaker? Anyway, I arrived in Hortense’s anthropological world via a battered, second-hand copy of Stranger and Friend (1966). This book offers a self-critical and reflexive take on her previous fieldwork adventures, including the time she spent in Hollywood conducting an ethnographic study of those people who were part of the infamous film-studio ‘machine’ (this work, she ruminates in Stranger and Friend, was her most difficult adventure of all). Anyway, after finishing Stranger and Friend I knew I wanted to read a lot more about Hortense’s exciting – as well as deeply frustrating – time in Hollywood, rather than her other fieldwork trips to what is now Papua New Guinea or even her time in Indianola, Mississippi. First published in 1950, I’m sure it’s still the case that Hollywood the Dream Factory is the only academic study and ethnography of ‘Tinseltown’ to date. I might be wrong though as I haven’t checked to be absolutely certain. If it is still the lone tome, then it must be about time for another scholar to revisit this particular field? I’m certainly open to Research Council offers.
Mari Matsuda (1997) Where is your Body? And Other Essays on Race, Gender and the Law Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Rather like Judith’s book, Mari’s book, I knew, would *have* to be one of my four. Mari, who has something of a dream job working as a law Professor at the University of Hawai’i System, is one of those intellectuals you read who is just (annoyingly!) able to ‘convince and persuade’ via beautifully constructed and well-argued writing. Not only this, in addition to being a scholar, she’s an activist, metalsmith and organic gardener. What more could you possibly ask for in terms of inspiration?! In her 1997 book, Where is Your Body?, I found a lot of really important (and understandable) ideas about, I suppose, that often complex beast – intersectionality – and the multiple connections between ‘race’, class and gender, in particular. I recommend this book all the time to both undergraduate and graduate students who are working with critical ‘race’ theory and/or ‘identity politics’ and trying to do as Matsuda does: that is, to try and ‘”ask the other question” (you will need to read the book to find out more on that issue, or just search Google it if you are a bit lazy like me).
Erving Goffman (1956) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre, Monograph No. 2.
I suppose there had to be a ‘token-male’ on my reading list (this is a playful but controversial notion perhaps!) so why not Goffman? But please note, this is *not* the 1959 book version of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life but rather the earlier Edinburgh University ‘working paper’ version from 1956 (you’ll probably already know he did fieldwork for his 1953 University of Chicago PhD on the Island of Unst, Shetland Islands?). To be clear, this isn’t a hipster ‘I prefer the earlier and less well known work of Goffman’ argument, I promise, but rather it’s a personal connection of this text to a specific time, place and memory. I discovered the 1956 version of ‘Self’ in the library at Edinburgh University around 1992-93 and literally read it in one-sitting (something that rarely happens these days with books, but is certainly very common with vinyl). Even the typos in the 1956 version I loved to bits. What else can you say about this man and his writing? Without him we’d simply be so much poorer off, in terms of our critical thinking on issues such as identity, interaction, stigma and institutions etc. Likewise, as with Matsuda, his writing style is just so appealing to me; self-deprecating, funny and perhaps most importantly, accessible – surely something we should all be striving for, as C. W. Mills argued around the same time as Goffman (please see his famous appendix, ‘On intellectual craftsmanship’ – this can be found at the back of his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination).
“You read for pleasure?”
It’s that look of sheer bafflement, amongst long-standing middle-class types in particular. You know, when you tell people you don’t really read books, that is, ‘for pleasure’. I mean I do read, obviously. I have to. It’s part of my job. But that’s ‘work’ – I read ‘work stuff’. It’s not always an easy or clear distinction, of course, but I sadly confess that reading a novel is just not something I do a lot of these days. When I make time, I much prefer to listen to music (see below) or watch a film (mainly written and directed by Hal Hartley it seems). I know, I know… but it’s a reflection of my background and where I come from. We just didn’t have books in our house and it wasn’t something that was encouraged (either at home or at my school, actually). My loss, I’m quite sure. Bloody social capital, eh?
Richard Flanagan (2001) Gould’s Book of Fish (Sydney, Picador Pan Macmillan)
This book was sent to me by an old friend from the early days of Paisley ‘Tech and she implored me to read it: “You’ll find something in this” she said. And I did. It’s a brutal and disturbing novel about a fictionalised ‘lost Colonial voice’, as the blurb puts it. But please don’t let that description put you off. It tells us, partly, why Australia is ‘Australia’, if you get my meaning. I really loved this book and have read it a few times now – so firmly recommended, even if you don’t read novels like me.
Douglas Coupland (2007) The Gum Thief (Toronto, ON: Random House)
Everyone talks about his 1991 book, Generation X – and it does, admittedly, capture a time and place really well – but I much preferred “The Gum Thief”. It has a story within a story and I’ve always had a soft spot for that kind of… well, storytelling (a bit like a good Belle and Sebastian B-side). The relationship between Roger and Bethany, co-workers at Staples, is written so beautifully and is sustained by their written words to each other, ‘touching from a distance’ almost. Again, it’s much better than I’m making out here. I also love Douglas an awful lot as he once interviewed Morrissey and he just kept going on and on about how big Morrissey’s head was (in quite a literal and physical sense). Who else could get away with that?
“You listen as you write?”
This was the hardest list to compile, by a country mile. Music, you see, is my life. And if anything, I’m probably more obsessed now by records – actual vinyl records – than when I was as a ‘teenager’ (social construction alert!). Buying records and totally obsessing over lyrics and chord changes etc. was never going to be just a ‘phase’ I’d ever grow out of. I knew that pretty quickly and from a young age. And like many social scientists, it seems, I’m a deeply frustrated musician at heart (although one without any discernible talent whatsoever). But I do listen and I listen hard; I have, perhaps, ‘young ears’ as John Peel once said about himself. I’d also like to mention, if you are ever visiting Glasgow, do take time to visit my favourite record shop Monorail (they can have your wages as well as my own).
The Field Mice – ‘Anoint’ (from the John Peel session, recorded on April 1, 1990)
“I want to be one my own / I want to see you…” ‘Anoint’ was only ever recorded as a John Peel session and, perhaps because of this fact, this track is all the more special. I’ve followed the work of Bobby Wratten throughout his various band incarnations (The Field Mice, Northern Picture Library, Trembling Blue Stars, The Occasional Keepers, Lightning in a Twilight Hour) and his music constantly ‘speaks’ to me, passionately and warmly. Not to be a complete show-off, but I actually had the good fortune to be introduced to him at a gig by The Pastels in Glasgow last year. All I will say is this: if the chance presents itself do take a risk and meet your heroes. They may surprise you and be quite lovely.
Scritti Politti – The “Sweetest Girl” (7” single, Rough Trade, 1981)
“She left because she understood / the value of defiance…” Quite possibly one of the most played ’45 singles in my collection; and every crackle and jump helps define and shape its meaning and history for me (if that doesn’t sound terribly pretentious). Aside from Rupert Everett in ‘Another Country’, Green Gartside was also something of a major ‘boy-crush’ (for he is, you know, the only human being to ever look amazing in a shell suit – just watch the video for the song ‘Absolute’ on YouTube if you don’t believe me).
Talk Talk – ‘Time it’s Time’ (from the LP ‘The Colour of Spring’, EMI, 1986)
“As bad as bad becomes / it’s not a part of you…” Everyone, especially music journalists, talks about the Talk Talk albums ‘Spirit of Eden’ (1988) and ‘Laughing Stock’ (1991) as being ‘seminal’ moments in the history of recorded music. This is very, very true and if you haven’t heard either of these records then change that fact immediately. However, if you take a step back and listen to the previous album, ‘The Colour of Spring’, and in particular the last track on Side 2, a song called “Time it’s Time”, you can see innovative sketches of where they were heading in terms of musical direction. A bit like Bobby Wratten, Mark Hollis is a true, bonafide genius and a hero to me, although the key difference is that the latter musician has essentially ‘retired’ from all things music and, indeed, public life. All we have now is the back catalogue to listen to and, yes, it’s a crying shame, but… what a back catalogue it is.
Morrissey – ‘Maladjusted’ (from the LP ‘Maladjusted’, Mercury Records, 1997)
“Keep thieves’ hours / with someone like you…” As hard and difficult as Steven Patrick makes it at times, I still love Morrissey as much as I did when I was (here comes the cliché) “16, clumsy and shy.” In fact, I possibly adore him even more now; for each record he makes, and tour that he plays, it may just be his last. You never really know with Morrissey. This particular track stands out for me for several reasons, but it’s mainly for the word-play of the lyrics. They just melt me; it’s all rather clever without being too clever. This is also, perhaps, the only song to mention Stevenage.
“But when do you sleep?”
My luxury item, undoubtedly, would be fresh, clean linen. I only ever seem to be able to get a really good night’s sleep with clean sheets on the bed. Obviously, it was very tempting to go for something like a record turntable, fresh coffee or even a torch (you never know, just being practical, I’ve watched an awful lot of horror films…) but there you go. I’m that unimaginative: clean sheets. But in my limited defence I’d just say that you can’t put a price on being able to wake up fresh, revived and ready to face the world again (and if you have ever suffered from insomnia, like myself, you will be able to relate to this answer I’m sure).