1: If you could only have four books on you island, what would you take?
The Art of Listening – Les Back
Les Back is one of my favourite writers, sociological or otherwise, and this is book I reach for if I ever need a reminder of why I wanted to do sociological research or writing in the first place. The sociology this book puts forward is one with a strong ethical commitment to a close and thoughtful examination of everyday life – particularly the over-looked or dismissed – in order to better understand how the world works. The chapters deal with all sorts of different examples, from how we might read London as a city in the wake of the 7/7 bombings from listening to its sounds, to a reading of tattoos as ‘inscriptions of love’. What cuts through the book is the argument that sociologists must listen to the world and interpret it carefully and with humility. This is advice that more sociologists need to heed!
The last line of the Conclusion reads: ‘We live in dark times but sociology – as a listening art – can provide resources to help us live through them, while pointing to the possibility of a different kind of future.’ That for me, sums up what sociology can be.
The Practice of Everyday Life – Michel de Certeau
This brilliant book is about how people remake the world through their actions. I use it a lot in teaching, particularly the essay ‘Walking in the City’ which is one of my favourite pieces of writing. De Certeau has greatly influenced my thinking on how people make a place for themselves in the city but, to paraphrase Marx, not in conditions of their choosing. I always tell students not to panic if they don’t ‘get it’ or understand every single sentence. I have read this repeatedly and take away something new from it each time. I am taking this book because I can’t imagine being finished with it.
Death and the Migrant- Yasmin Gunaratnam
I’m taking this book to remind me about the potential of good ethnographic writing. It has become a truism that sociologists can’t write. But people who think sociological writing is rubbish should read Yasmin Gunaratnam. I originally read this over a weekend while criss-crossing London on the tube and didn’t want to put it down. It is a beautiful and urgent piece of writing about the coming together of migration histories and end of life care in the bodies and experiences of dying migrants. It re-examines Bourdieu’s work on social pain and uncovers moments where new ways to alleviate or grasp suffering come out of interaction and negotiation at the borders of bodies and of life and death.
Come out Swinging: The changing world of boxing in Gleason’s gym – Lucia Trimbur
So much urban sociology suffers from macho researchers wanting to the heroes of their own stories. This book is the opposite of that and deserves to become an urban classic. Based on years of ethnography, the book looks at processes of urban change through the space of a boxing gym in Brooklyn and combines a careful analysis of the changing landscape of New York City with an examination of masculinities, race and work. The author is very much present in the book but is not all up in your grill. The preface is an excellent example of ethnographic scene setting. It takes you into the intimate world of the gym but links this to the big questions about gentrification, race and the city in just 5 pages. I read this over the summer and promptly pressed it onto my ethnographer friends and students.
2: Ok, so you can also take two novels, what would they be?
My Brilliant Friend- Elena Ferrante
Can I take the whole Neapolitan series please? If not, this one will do. At any one time there is a book that I buy for everyone I know for birthdays etc…. For the last year or so it has been this one. I read all four in the series and was completely gripped from start to finish. Ferrante is a phenomenal writer. The books chronicle the lives of two women growing up in Naples from childhood to middle/old age. It’s about their friendship and how we are defined by the relationships we have with others. It is also one of the best novels I have read about class and place – I’m thinking of a passage when the protagonist goes from her own working class neighbourhood into the centre of Naples for the first time. While all of the series demand to be read together, ‘My Brilliant Friend’ also works on its own. That ending, those shoes! Read it if you haven’t already. I’m looking forward to reading these again.
Fugitive Pieces- Anne Michaels
Another novel that I have bought for countless friends and members of my family is ‘Fugitive Pieces’. This is a continent-crossing book about migration, love and loss. I’m also a fan of Anne Michael’s poetry. I was lucky enough to see her and John Berger perform a piece called ‘Vanishing Points’ some years ago in the German Gymnasium in King’s Cross that had a very similar feel to this book.
3: What four pieces of music would you take?
Different Class – Pulp
This album turned 20 last year. I have played it thousands of times and it has never got old for me. It combines stinging class commentary, humour, sex and story-telling. This, for me, is the soundtrack of coming of age and moving to London. Seeing Pulp reunited at Primavera festival in Barcelona was one of my all time favourite music experiences.
Motown Chartbusters Volume 3 – Various
This is a compilation so might be a slight cheat, but if a person could take a symphony I think I should be allowed Motown Chartbusters Volume 3, my favourite volume of the set. I would be very happy dancing and singing my way around my island with The Supremes, Marvin & Tammi, The Isley Brothers and co. An added bonus is that it also has a highly reflective sleeve that could double as a mirror and tool for starting fires.
Mr Sellack – The Cornshed Sisters
The Cornshed Sisters combine clever, funny song-writing with lush 4-part harmonies. This cover version (originally a song by The Roches who I also love) sounds like it should be from the Bugsy Malone soundtrack and was recorded on a gramophone at 78rpm. My friend Marie, who I used to be in a band with, sings the lead vocal on this and so this way I get to take her with me.
Hunky Dory – David Bowie
When David Bowie died I noticed that a lot of my friends’ comments on why they loved his music were about how it gave them a perspective on the world where the extraordinary was possible and lurking just below the surface of the everyday, or around the corner. For me, ‘Hunky Dory’ encapsulates this perfectly.
We have two copies of this record in our flat and both are ruined, scratched to smithereens from being played late at parties by people with sticky hands when it was suddenly necessary to dance to ‘Queen Bitch’. As well as dancing to ‘Queen Bitch’ on my island, I will also enjoy belting out ‘Life on Mars’ without worrying about the neighbours.
4: And finally, what luxury item would you take?
I would like to take the BFI (British Film Institute) but I will settle for a viewing booth and a never-ending supply of films.