The supervision reading list: a sighed again? as it arrives in your inbox at the dusk of week 0 before term has even begun; a frantic underlining and library-reserving of the double- and triple-starred texts, only to find that the key recommended text is only available in Pembroke library, which doesn’t even offer Geography; and a good-riddance filing away once you’ve written the essay, only to find, mid-supervision, that you’ve missed the text that holds the key argument to your essay and have to retrieve the list to circle, highlight and abrasively underline said text as a note-to-self for revision. A Boo You to the trope that we do nothing but colour in (albeit a shorter Boo You if it’s for a physical essay; the list of 12 or so 3-page-long references from Cryosphere was sorely missed when faced with a 30-odd-page booklet of 20-page-long articles for Development last year). The reading list is obviously the spine to the course, but we often forget that it’s just that: the spine, not the flesh. It’s the ideas from the reading lists and the marriage (or indeed divorce) between these and our own that flesh out the essays. Sometimes, if you dare (and care for the time), you might even read beyond the reading list (shock! Horror!). Here are 6 books to Read Geography beyond your supervision reading list, as I’ve found useful over the past two years.
Disclaimer: big Human Geography bias, partly because I took all-Human modules for part 1B, partly because I never found Physical reading particularly riveting so never ventured beyond the reading list in my own time.
‘Understanding a Photograph’ and ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger
Module links: 1A Geopolitics; 1A Cultural Geography; 1A Urban 1B Development; 1B Core
Though John Berger was perhaps best known as an art-critic, his essays transcend the niche connotations of their focus, primarily, on art. Through the medium of photography, the essays collated by Geoff Dyer in ‘Understanding a Photograph’ explore power relations (such as between viewer and photographed in a picture of war), developmental obligations and representation (how does a photograph of agony normalise a particular representation of another space?), the performative and normative uses of discourse (in this case, photography), the relationship between time and memory (how does photography manipulate time to construe particular memory?) and reading normative compositions, such as a landscape, as social constructs, amongst other thematic ideas. Written variously in text and image, the essays in ‘Ways of Seeing’ explore the ever-present influence of myriad assumptions concerning, for example, gender, class, beauty, truth, taste and civilisation, on what and how we see; Berger’s argument ultimately rests on the premise that seeing is not a passive visual act, but an active reading. Both collections discuss ideas core to cultural geography, without the confusing, scare-physical-geographers-away jargon. Plus, as an added bonus, you can pretend to have some intellectual understanding of art to your hip Art History pals.
‘Flâneuse’ by Lauren Elkin
Module links: 1A Cultural Geography; 1A Urban; 1B Citizenship; 1B Core
Taking the patriarchal premise of the flâneur, an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities, undoubtedly male, Lauren Elkin produces the flâneuse, defining her as ‘a determined resourceful woman keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk’. Initially a literary trope essential to the streets of 19th Century Paris with connotations of leisurely freedom in the city, a rich, white, male privilege, the idea of the flânuer was popularised in scholarship as an exemplary of the modern urban experience by Walter Benjamin in the 20th Century. Writing in a style part memoir, part intellectual discussion, part cultural navigation, Elkin explores the female experience of this trope in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Beyond a feminist text and re-writing of absence into the urban, the book raises the question of our relationship to landscape and it to us, the role of the urban as a heart and medium of culture, politics, economics etc., and the ways in which we read and write the world. It’s fiercely academic, but also, gloriously, a one-sitting, book-hangover sort of read.
‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ by Thomas Hardy
Module links: 1A Cultural Geography; 1B Citizenship; 1B Core
Fiction! Slightly harder to work into a supervision essay with success, but nonetheless effective for exploring themes and ideas through a primary medium, rather than someone’s academic study or How To textbook (you could even watch the recent film adaptation to save 450 pages of reading). Beyond the story of Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, stubborn and independent woman who finds herself caught in the attraction of three contrasting suitors, ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ is Thomas Hardy’s answer to Landscapes Perform Work! and Power Relations Are Normatively Constructed! You’ll find a commentary on social relations at the time (patriarchal; economic; classed), an explorative writing of typically absent figures (workers; women; lower-classes) back into the historical landscape, and cultural elaboration of the landscape(s) itself, almost to personification. You could substitute or interchange Hardy with Dickens, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Tolstoy or other writers of similar social commentary.
‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ by Susan Sontag
Module links: 1A Geopolitics; 1B Development; 1B Citizenship; 1B Core
From the pictures of Aylan Kurdi and a sense of urgency around the refugee crisis to those of the twin towers burning and a cultivation of support for American hegemony, it is indisputable that pictures are put to work for myriad normative purposes. Exploring the uses and meanings of images relative to questions of war, sympathy and conscience, Susan Sontag produces an essay rich in case studies old and new, familiar and abstract, that shape, underwrite and indeed question the more challenging questions raised throughout our course. Beyond its framing of regarding the pain of others through images, Sontag’s essay reads as an exploration of socio-political reality and culture in the twenty-first century for which engaging with other people and realities is an unavoidable experience. Especially in an age of heightened xenophobia, locally and globally, it makes for a particularly poignant read and contemporary reference.
‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’ by Yuval Noah Harari
Module links: 1B Core
Yuval Noah Harari’s bestsellers, ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’, have become something of a recent popular science phenomenon. The first explores how we, homo sapiens, came to be the only human species of at least six left inhabiting the earth today, and the second the next stage of evolution that will shape the twenty-first century. Though a historian by training, Harari adopts a style of writing inter-disciplinary in approach and completely approachable to the layman in style. The most interesting feats of his analysis question fundamentally what it means to be human, and how in many ways what/who we were continues to shape what/who we are today and what/who we may be tomorrow. The results are an engaging anthropological narrative without the oft-impenetrable density of a Jared Diamond book and a socio-cultural forecast with greater grounding and perhaps validity than Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Harari’s only tarnish is that his PhD is from The Other Place.
‘CHAVS: The Demonization of the Working Class’ by Owen Jones
Module links: 1A Unequal; 1A Economic Globalisation; 1B Austerity
Mortgages? Bond markets? The financial crisis? I had no idea, and looking at the 1B module Austerity and Affluence after the preliminary introduction of the 1A economic geography modules, I joked, seriously, that I would have to buy Economics For Dummies. Owen Jones’ CHAVS provides an accessible (honestly) but still fiercely academic alternative to the more how-and-why-did-I-get-into-Cambridge option fresher me resigned herself to. Taking the trope of the CHAV (Council Housing And Violence) and associated (re)production of the working class in Britain as something to be simultaneously feared and scorned, Jones explores the complex reality of and relationships to the working class both historically and today, culminating in a scathing question of why and how they have come to function as society’s scapegoats. It’s an important assessment, not purely in the wake of the recent financial crisis and associated push for austerity, BREXIT vote and Trump election. Characteristic of Jones (see other work by him as a columnist for The Guardian), the book reads easily, fluently, and angrily. Regardless of political orientation, the cultural exploration of the financial crisis is a useful source of clarity in trying to navigate mortgages, bond markets and other fogs as you approach 1B Austerity and Affluence.
By Chloe Rixon