BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar

Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Culture is a deep and fascinating topic, but a dirty little secret of academia is that there are two words used to signal subjects and courses for the not-so-bright kids: one is “Studies” and the other is “for.” (As in “Math FOR Economists,” a course that I once took that was – I’m sure of it – greatly dumbed down from what Math majors learned. “Economics FOR Business Majors” is a more widely known example; it’s Economics for people who are afraid of equations and who can’t figure out which way is up on a supply and demand curve.) So, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guide to “Cultural Studies,” as opposed to a book about, say, Cultural Anthropology, which I believe is the big-boy pants version of the discipline under discussion.

The author is forthright that cultural studies is a bit amorphous and that it struggles to find its place amid the established disciplines that touch upon culture from varying perspectives (i.e. psychology, philosophy, anthropology, etc.) The book begins before there was a “Cultural Studies,” per se, discussing competing definitions of culture and related precursor disciplines, e.g. semiotics. It then describes the evolution of the subject and its varied points of focus and ideas across its major epicenters: Europe, North America, Australia, and South Asia. It investigates colonization and its influence on indigenous cultures, and it looks at how a range of concepts intersect with culture, including: science, technology, race, gender, sexuality, and media. It concludes by reflecting on globalization and the discontents who wish to end or replace this homogenizing force.

I did learn quite a few new things from this book, and if you’re looking to understand culture as a landscape of academic study, it’s worth having a look at it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As a rule, I don’t read books by celebrities. This is the first one I can remember reading. My reasoning is rooted in publishers’ beliefs that such books will sell no matter what, and anything that doesn’t have to be good is unlikely to be.

And yet, I’m glad I made an exception for this book. Perhaps, because it’s not a book about Noah’s rise to fame, there are only a few off-hand references to his early career successes in South Africa. This book is about his youth in South Africa as a mixed-race child under Apartheid (hence the title, as such interracial progeny were illegal.) The book focuses heavily on race and the bizarre logic of South African governance during those days, as well as how rulers set groups against each other to make their own misbehavior less conspicuous. However, it’s also a very personal story, telling of his close relationship with his mother, the abuse he and his mother suffered from his drunkard stepfather, and the challenges that compelled him to adapt to survive loneliness and the awkwardness of youth.

Given Noah’s comedic merits, it will come as no surprise that the book is humorous, despite the tonal burden of its subject matter – i.e. racism, poverty, and abuse. Often, the subject matter makes the humor dark and bitter, but it’s nevertheless amusing.

If you’re curious about life under apartheid, or in an abusive household, you’ll likely find yourself in the grips of this tense and hilarious memoir.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany

The Atheist in the AtticThe Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The first two-thirds of this book is the titular novella. It’s a cerebral work of historical fiction that will be loved by readers interested in philosophy and history, but which will be dry and claustrophobic to those expecting a gripping tale. It’s not that there are no stakes. The story is about a clandestine meeting between Leibniz and Spinoza during a turbulent time in the Dutch Republic. That said, the bulk of the story is discussion and internal monologuing about philosophic ideas. Leibniz speaks with Spinoza, but also with household staff – offering insight into his psychology. In short, for perspective into the psychology and philosophy of the time, it’s intriguing, but it’s no thriller.

The last one-third of the book consists of two nonfiction pieces. The first, there’s an essay that Delany wrote on racism in science fiction. In it, he discusses some hostility he was subjected to at a Hugo Award ceremony early in his career. He also describes how he is repeatedly put on panels with other black writers (whose work is different from his own) rather than with those whose work is most closely related to his. It’s an interesting look at the varied faces of racism from blatant through well-intentioned to accidental. The last piece is an interview that rambles over a wide expanse of topics touching on Delany’s career.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. That said, I’m an admitted philosophy nerd. I think someone who only read the cover blurb might expect the novella to be more story driven and less character- and philosophy-centric. The essay on race features both stories from Delany’s career and his views on racism as a system. If you like cerebrally-engaging reading, check it out.

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