The best books that will make you see the world with fresh eyes

Don Kulick Author Of A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea
By Don Kulick

Who am I?

I am an anthropologist who has written or edited more than a dozen books on topics that range from the lives of trans sex workers, to the anthropology of fat. I have conducted extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and Scandinavia. I work at Uppsala University in Sweden, where I am a Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology, and where I direct a research program titled Engaging Vulnerability.


I wrote...

A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea

By Don Kulick,

Book cover of A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea

What is my book about?

As a young anthropologist thirty years ago, I traveled to a remote village in Papua New Guinea to try to understand why a language dies. I went to Papua New Guinea because, with over 800 different languages, that little country is the most linguistically diverse place on the planet. The people in the village I ended up living in spoke a language unrelated to any other; one that had only ever been spoken by about 100 people.

This is the story of my life in that village, called Gapun. It is a story of how I kept returning, and over the years became inextricably implicated in the villagers’ destiny. It is the story of the impact that Western culture has had on the farthest reaches of the globe, and how I came to realize that the death of a language is about a great deal more than language.

The books I picked & why

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The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction

By Michel Foucault,

Book cover of The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction

Why this book?

This is the Granddaddy of earthshattering, perspective-changing books: philosopher Michel Foucault’s nimble dissection of the rise and the role of sexuality in the Western world. Written, and surely meant to be read, more like a Homeric epic poem than an academic treatise, every single sentence in this book quivers with energy and perception. From pithy aphorisms like “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species”, to heady pronouncements such as ‘”Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective”, this book is a gift that perpetually keeps on giving. Guaranteed to blow your mind.


Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious

By Michael Billig,

Book cover of Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious

Why this book?

Sigmund Freud tends to be lampooned these days as a cartoonish patriarch, but psychoanalysis is one of the few genuinely insightful theories that tries to understand why people frequently do things they can’t explain, don’t understand, or don’t even want to do. Social psychologist Michael Billig’s book starts out by noting that Freud considered his greatest discovery to be not the unconscious (as most people think), but repression – the series of activities that produce the unconscious. The book is a clearly-written, practical exploration of how repression is accomplished in day-to-day life. An example: “Each time adults tell a child how to speak politely, they are indicating how to speak rudely”. Think about that.


Beauvoir in Time

By Meryl Altman,

Book cover of Beauvoir in Time

Why this book?

This recently published excavation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is almost as thick as Beauvoir’s massive tract, but don’t let that put you off. The photo of Beauvoir on the cover conveys an insouciant “Yeah, sure” attitude, and Meryl Atman uncannily channels that sentiment into a dazzlingly authoritative and entertaining discussion of why the overwhelming majority of the criticism of Beauvoir’s famous tome happens to be misguided and wrong. The book is about gender, race, sexuality, class, and privilege, but it isn’t a polemic. It is an exercise in critical reading at its most invigorating.


Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

Why this book?

This slim volume by Toni Morrison is a spare, elegant meditation on how what is absent – from view, from awareness, from narrative (in this case, what she calls the “Africanist presence” in the literary imagination) – exerts a structuring influence on what is present. The prose is characteristically beautiful, but what keeps me coming back to this book is the luminous tenor of Morrison’s engagement with literature that many people find objectionable and even racist. Rather than dismiss, condemn, and cancel, Morrison wants to understand, engage, and gain insight. “My project arises from delight, not disappointment”, she says, and that truly shows.


How to Be Gay

By David M. Halperin,

Book cover of How to Be Gay

Why this book?

As befitting the cheeky title, this book – about what it means to be, and to become, a gay man – is incisive, erudite, and a lot of fun to read. A pioneer of queer theory (and with this intervention, I suspect, a renegade from it), David Halperin is an unapologetic camp. He challenges received wisdom about how gay sensibility supposedly is misogynist, passé, irrelevant or dead, and his reflections on everything from Joan Crawford’s pizazz, to the current state of gay marriage, vacillate between being capacious and withering. “Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people” he sniffs at one point, dispensing a delightful, and typically barbed, aperçu.


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