What I'm reading

When words look and feel like their meanings

I’ve finally had a good look at Jean-François Champollion’s 1824 Précisthe book in which he lays out his famous decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, I didn’t read every last sentence of its 588 pages, and I’m even surprised that I got through its full title: Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiens, ou, Recherche sur les éléments premiers de cette écriture sacrée.

But I did get a sense of his achievement, including the rivalry with other contemporary Egyptologists such as Thomas Young, and his fine attention to detail witnessed especially in the beautiful concordance tables of hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic scripts:

As someone who is absolutely not an Egyptologist, I was also quite happy to learn a few stray things along the way. For example, that the Rosetta stone did not provide an instant skeleton key to unravel the mystery, as popularly supposed. Continue reading

What I'm reading

The Winter Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2018

An odd list for an odd year. I have probably spent more time frantically reading about Brexit than anything else, but I assure you there is no Brexit here because we all deserve happiness. Next year I may struggle to maintain myself. (In case you’re wondering, Bloomberg has the best commentary.)

Strangely I read almost nothing about sex that was worth including in this list. The recent Quartz piece only made the cut because, as Jason Wilson put it, it’s a “sly, deadpan masterpiece”. Also, its title is the opposite of its actual message suggesting that the editor didn’t really read it.

Meanwhile, the over-representation of articles on academia reflects both the quality of commentaries in 2018, as well as my increasing anxiety about what the research sector is really all about and whether I’m in danger of going down with the ship.

Categories are somewhat arbitrary, and many of the pieces could be under several headings at once. Debbie Cameron’s ‘Shibboleths’, for example, seems to belong almost everywhere.

Enjoy! And if you come across any great or thought-provoking writing in 2019, please send it my way.

What I'm reading

Best journalism of 2017 (with bonus ‘worst of’ section)

Welcome to the Winter Syllabus 2017, a collection of articles and commentaries that captured my attention. (See also 2016, 2015, 2014.) I use the term ‘journalism’ loosely.

Standard disclaimer: This is not a list of ‘likes’ nor is it a recommendation for what ought to be read or which deserves exposure—that list would be endless and also meaningless.

If you’re only going to read a few of these, the ones that have stayed with me the most are Virginia Heffernan’s The Internet Is the Uncanniest Valley. Don’t Get Trapped in It, Kevin Kelly’s The Myth of a Superhuman AI, and Claire Dederer’s What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?. Maybe the funniest was Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Buzzfeed Article, but there were so many funnies this year. I guess we all needed it.




Ethics and the examined life










Writing & writers

Most overrated crap

I should have started this sub-list earlier because I think it’s important to keep track of articles that seemed to be shared all over the place for no good reason. I won’t link to them since you will need no help finding them.

Number one goes to John Pilger’s ‘Terror in Britain: What did the Prime Minister know?” Nobody has been able to explain to me why a long-winded conspiracy theorist with a bromance for Putin and Assange has such a passionate following on the left. This piece, circulated earnestly on AASNet and elsewhere, is an utter train wreck of bollocks.

Second prize goes to Dan Kopf’s ‘The new, nearly invisible class markers that separate the American elite from everyone else’. All you need to do is imagine somebody who never did an undergraduate arts degree independently discovering the concepts of class and consumption and being blown away by their own insight.

[How I made this (a note to self). Favourite articles were archived using instapaper and then downloaded as html via the settings page]

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What I'm reading

Best Journalism of 2016

Welcome to the Winter Syllabus™ for 2016. I’ve gone with ‘Winter’ this time, in honour of my change in hemispheres.

A very interesting year in digital journalism. I loved Nieman Lab for its commentary on journalism, Quartz for being consistently good, Shortlist Daily was masterful, Reductress was hilarious and even Meanjin was no longer crap (just in time to lose its funding). And through it all, Apple News continues to suck as if trying its hardest to be terrible.

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Some stand out pieces for 2016 are ‘Fear of a feminist future‘ by Laurie Penny in The Baffler, ‘Get mad and get even‘ by Eleanor Robertson in Meanjin, ‘The arrangements‘ by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie in The New York Times (though it was perhaps more poignant before the Turd Astroid hit the US), ‘Uncanny valley‘ by Anna Wiener in N+1, and the ‘Voyeur’s Motel‘ by Gay Talese in The New Yorker. And one more, because I can’t help myself: ‘The Unbelievable tale of Jesus’s wife‘, by Ariel Sabar in The Atlantic. 

As always, the pieces are listed if they made me think differently about something but I do not agree with everything that is written. This is a syllabus, not a manifesto! For those who want more, you can read up on 2013, 2014 and 2015 by following the links.

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What I'm reading

Academic texts I have known and loved

I have a habit of telling everybody what I’m reading online, but not so much about what I’m reading for research. Here is a short list of books and papers that I’ve come across over the last ten years and that I consider to be personal landmarks for one reason or another.

Looking back over the list, I’m almost disappointed in myself. If I was really out to impress others I would have added lots of monumental tomes staking out various important paradigm shifts and intellectual turns and been more attentive to diversity.

But that wasn’t the aim of the exercise. Texts are listed here because the authors have influenced my thinking in some way, or presented a Big Idea that has captured my imagination, or they may simply have an engaging writing style that has sucked me in despite making poor arguments for which I have decided to forgive them.

These are all the works that I can think of off the top of my head. I will update this post as I think of more.

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What I'm reading

Best journalism of 2015

Welcome to the 2015 edition of the Summer Syllabus™. For those who came in late, this is my wrap up of the most interesting things I read online over the past twelve months. This year’s list is really long, for some reason. Next year I promise to be more selective. Looking back I can pick out a few themes that have caught my attention this year but which I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted: cultural appropriation, nerd hubris (still! see last year), capitalism and public anthropology. I’ve also been fascinated by the various college-based social justice movements that are emerging on some US campuses that I suspect nobody really understands regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum or how much insider conviction they bring to their arguments.

My reading recommendations are not an endorsement of the opinions contained within – if a piece of writing makes me think about an issue in a different way then I may included it even if it also makes my blood boil. And if you read nothing else on this list, I recommend you have a look at: God Tier: Facebook moms run the meme game, The Chinese Lingerie Venders of Egypt, and The 40-Year-Old Reversion.

Architecture and aesthetics

Authors and fiction


Children and parenthood

Cultural appropriation

The curious thing that is happening on US campuses

Effective altruism

Ethics and the examined life







Nerd hubris



Research and higher education




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What I'm reading

The best ethnographies, as judged by ANU anthro students

When I was new to anthropology I really wanted some kind of ‘best of’ list of ethnographies to get me started. For the most part when I asked anthropologists to tell what work had influenced them the most, they had to stop and think about it or they gave equivocal answers.

So I’m pleased to circulate a recently drafted ‘best of’ list produced by anthropology students at the Australian National University. I am not endorsing the list, but simply making it available. ( If you’re curious to know what my favourite ethnographies are, see this post here.)

It’s encouraging that so many were published in the last fifteen years. Perhaps this is a sign of intellectual progress and generational change within the discipline.

Here it is, with thanks to Shiori Shakuto and the Anthropgrad list:

Abu-Lughod, Lila 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honour and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Allison, Anne 1994. Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, Benedict 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Bourgois, Phillipe 2002. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press.

Bourgois, Phillipe and Schonberg, Jeffrey 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.

Casaro, M Christina 2007. ‘Polo, Laughman, So Say: Situating Uyghur Food between Central Asia and China’. In Beller-Hann et al (eds) Situating the Uyghurs between China and Central Asia. Ashgate.

Gammeltoft, Tine 2014. Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Golub, Alex 2014. Leviathans at the Gold Mine: Creating Indigenous and Corporate Actors in Papua New Guinea. Duke University Press.

Gordillo, Gaston R. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Duke University Press.

Graeber, David 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. AK Press.

Gupta, Akhil 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Duke University Press.

Ho, Karen 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ingold, Tim 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Routledge.

Kohn, Eduardo 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Lea, Tess 2008. Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts: Indigenous Health in Northern Australia. UNSW Press.

Lora-Wainwright, Anna 2013. Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village. University of Hawaii Press.

Margold, Jane 1995. ‘Narratives of Masculinity and Transnational Migration: Filipino Workers in the Middle East’. In Ong, Aihwa and Peletz, Michael (eds). Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia. University of California Press.

Messick, Brinkley 1996. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. University of California Press.

Miller, Daniel 2008. The Comfort of Things. Polity Press.

Mueggler, Erik. 2001. The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China. Uiversity of California Press.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh 2013. Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Durham, Duke University Press.

Paxson, Heather 2013. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 1992. Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Trawick, Margaret 1992. Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. University of California Press.

Tsing, Anna Lawenhaupt 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press.

Turner, Victor 1970. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Vankatesh, Sudhir 2014. Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy. Penguin Press.

Wacquant, Loic, 2007. Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford University Press.

Wardlow, Holly 2006. Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. University of California Press.