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The List

This is the reading list I  have compiled with the help of all of you.  Now that I am just about to press PASTE and stick it in I remember that there was an animadversion -- I guess -- to Chatwin's Songlines with a knowledgable alternative, which I will use. 

Italics have not survived the paste.

I've excluded all fiction, and not used books I thought were too hard or were off the specific topic of Cultures We Really Evolved that are Stranger Than Any You can Think of.  You will notice with what art I have, in my descriptions, implied but not averred that I have read all these.  Something you pick up in academic circles.  Thanks again to all.

The Night Battles, Carlo Ginzburg.  An alternative story of how witch and werewolf beliefs operated in medieval Italy.

The Art of Memory, Frances Yates.  How a mnemonic mentioned in Latin and Greek rhetoric flowered into an impossibly vast magico-philosophic system in the Renaissance.

Mad Travellers, Ian Hacking.  Psychology at work at the end of the 19th century to explain the problem (real at the time, it seems) of people who walk for thousands of miles without any memory of having done so.  The treatments as strange as the stories.

Sons of Sinbad, Allan Villiers.  The lives and work of Arab seamen on the Indian Ocean – written in the1930s when the last of them were sailing in the same dhows as they had for centuries.

Negara,  Clifford Geertz.  Classic account of the “theatre state” in 19th century Bali: government as organized spectacle.

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin.  A sort-of-fictionalized story of Chatwin’s exploration of the meaning and uses of Australian Aboriginal song.

Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, George Lakoff. The way different cultures view the world as exemplified in their language.  Don’t invent a language without it.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles McKay.  A debunking of popular stories, legends, miracles, and delusions, written in 1841.  The debunking (full of errors itself) is as amazing as the stories.  Famous for its dissection of the tulip mania.

The Serpent and the Rainbow,  Wade Davis.  Real Haitian voodoo and the zombie cult. 

1491,  Charles Mann.   The civilizations that thrived in the Americas before the Europeans.

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, Bradley K. Martin.  Nearly unbelievable dystopia.

Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, Richard Stites.  All the failed, ignored, suppressed possibilities that preceded the Communist state.  Utopia meets Dead Souls.

Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie.  A medieval town in France – beliefs and politics in the period of the Cathar heresy.

Celtic Heritage, Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees.  The world of ancient Ireland and Wales – the shape of the world they experienced. 

The World of the Shining Prince,  Ivan Morris.  Heian-period Japan.  Read it with a brief  book of the period,  As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams, in the Morris translation.

The Floating World, James A. Michener.  Lighter treatment, this time Edo Japan.

The Death of the Woman Wang or The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, both by Jonathan Spence.  Among our greatest Western interpreters of Chinese culture.

East is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll, Thomas Gladwin.  Polynesian sailors and their methods for crossing open seas without instruments or charts, navigation skills which are their culture.

Castle and Cathedral, David Macauley.  You probably read them as kids: books by a great draughtsman about the actual month-to-month and year-to-year building of these buildings. Let’s get our details right.

Faces of Degeneration A European Disorder, 1848-1918,  Daniel Pick.  The pseudo-science of “negative eugenics” (facing the supposed fact of human devolution) – creepy, horrific in its consequences.


( 48 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 10th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC)
I have to go out and read the half of those that I haven't read right away.

Should you ever actually need to, you can put italics in Livejournal by typing < i > to start the italics and < /i > to end them, removing the spaces I've put in between the carats and the letters. This also works for bold ( < b >), half-sized text (< small >) and strike-through (< strike >). It probably works for underline, but I've never tried.
Jan. 10th, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)
why not just use rich text?

(but thank you anyway - there were instances where I really wished I'd known that - thumbs up!)
Jan. 13th, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)
Underline is < u > and < / u >, but it is generally considered against Web style to use it as a decorative element because by default it signifies a clickable link. Online, underlined text you can't click on is trompe l'oeil.
Jan. 10th, 2007 08:23 pm (UTC)
What a splendid list!

Jan. 10th, 2007 08:25 pm (UTC)
Another book about Japan
I was talking to a friend about your project and he recommended:
Memories of Silk and Straw: A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan
by Junichi Saga
Jan. 10th, 2007 09:34 pm (UTC)
One small correction: The people (and culture) of Puluwat Atoll are Micronesian, not Polynesian.
Jan. 10th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
See? Try as hard as you can to represent yourself as expert in matters you don't have a clue about, and your pretense can be punctured in a word. Students picking this book would have to choose between two thoughts: Heyt, he didn't read this book! Or, Hey, what a dolt, can't remember it was Micronesian not Polynesian! In either case you have prevented me from suffering deserved humiliation. (Though Yale students would never _say_...)
Jan. 10th, 2007 11:27 pm (UTC)
Not a sparrow falls in Puluwat ...
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 11th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)
This one is excellent!
Jan. 21st, 2007 01:38 pm (UTC)
Tes -- that was going to go on my original list and I forgot it -- thanks!
Jan. 10th, 2007 11:12 pm (UTC)
Maya Deren's book on Voudoun is actually my favourite--wish I could remember the title at work, but I think it's "The Divine Horsemen."

I know you've read "The Night Battles".
Jan. 11th, 2007 12:30 am (UTC)
Nothing out of Africa, it seems. Unless you count Haiti, which, indeed, to a degree, one can.

Interesting. Especially in light of what is sitting on shelves here within my current line of vision.

Love, C.
Jan. 21st, 2007 02:14 pm (UTC)
Well like what? Got a favorite about an African culture? What was the classic anthropological text about the Dogun?
Jan. 22nd, 2007 08:11 pm (UTC)
Evans-pritchard's Witchcraft and Magic among the Azande is a good one. But I don't know about the Dogun
Feb. 2nd, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)
If I may suggest African Fractals?
Jan. 11th, 2007 04:36 am (UTC)
Let me super-second Lakoff and advise caution with Davis. I really liked S & R when I read it, but I seem to recall there being some academic controversies about it. Speaking of which, what's the final word on Darkness in El Dorado? If it were to be largely accurate, anthropology itself might qualify as a bizarre sub-culture.
Jan. 11th, 2007 05:20 am (UTC)
Another vote for Maya Deren

I'm glad my reservations about The Songlines had an effect - I like the book, don't get me wrong - but... May I also suggest if you're interested in Indigenous Australian culture that you look at a couple of movies for your students - both directed by Rolf de Heer - The Tracker and Ten Canoes. Jack Davis would be best represented by his trilogy The Dreamers.

And may I reiterate and reinforce the above comment about Maya Deren? The book is alternately published as The Divine Horsemen - or The Voodoo Gods. And there is a documentary on her life which has remarkable film she took in Haiti of voodoo ritual - called In the Mirror of Maya Deren.

And belatedly - I really enjoyed Lord Byron's Novel. An often alien past recreated superbly.

Jan. 13th, 2007 02:35 am (UTC)
Re: Another vote for Maya Deren
Eco on Wilkins: Search for the Perfect Language. (Well, I think that's the title)

Jan. 11th, 2007 01:32 pm (UTC)
A rather belated contribution - but I wanted to add my mite. The first page of Foucault's 'Order of Things', about the (in)famous Chinese encyclopedia, and the Borges essay from whence its whipped, 'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.' Eco has written usefully about Wilkins somewhere or other. Ironically, in our postcolonialist times its the principled denial of cultural difference that can look 'alien', incomprehensible.

I don't think anybody else has mentioned this - Inga Cledinnan's wonderful 'Aztecs'.

And talking of Ginzburg, surely 'The Cheese and the Worms' is even more pertinent than 'Night Battles'.


Jan. 11th, 2007 07:14 pm (UTC)
And talking of Ginzburg, surely 'The Cheese and the Worms' is even more pertinent than 'Night Battles'.

I've heard that too, though I didn't read Night Battles.
Jan. 21st, 2007 07:45 pm (UTC)
More Clendinnan
Inga Clendinnan's "Ambivalent Conquests" is brilliant as well, and might actually address the issue a number of commentor's have raised about the white Europeon male perspective. She's female, for a start, but the book itself does a great job of looking at Mayan/European interraction from both sides, and seeks to correct a lot of the bias that our conceived notions of history, based on the writings of literate Christian authors, produce. And you can't ask for a more mind-blowingly "other" world view than that of Mayan cosmology.
Jan. 20th, 2007 07:32 pm (UTC)
Just a point of random commentary from another educator, but I find it a little problematic that the way you suggest to creative writing students that they best understand other human cultures is to read what a collection of mostly european, mostly men have had to say about them. Foolishly crafted fantasy that is at a disconnect with with lived history is one thing, but writing based on a male and Western (and maybe also white)-centered view of history can also be worrysome, and often moreso. That said, I haven't read any of these books, so they may all be wonderful and balanced treatments of the material; but even so, I would suggest that one source is probably never enough to properly represent a people or culture. Food for thought.
Jan. 20th, 2007 09:41 pm (UTC)
Very just, and there's no doubt that several (not all ) of these books are the views of visitors or lookers-in to other societies. My goal in the list was not, however, to teach any of my students about other cultures -- that woul dbe presumptuous of me -- the idea was to amaze them with the unimagined (by them, in my guess) variety and surprise in human thought and culture, so that when they go to imagine their own, they will have at least some measure. The white European Western male thought here represented (in e.g. The Art of Memory or Revolutionary Dreams) will be as strange to most white Westerners as the cultures of places far from them in space or time.
Jan. 21st, 2007 05:38 am (UTC)
Very true. Especially if Hacking (the one author on that list I have read) is anything to go by. Thank you for the response, sorry if it was a little confrontational... I have had my hackles up this week over Undercover Mosque and all the bad racial politics surrounding what is happening with that and struggling with these issues myself in my own writing. I'm glad you could see past my hackles and could take my words in the productive spirit I really meant them in. (Though after watching Children of Men tonight I think I have decided to give up and hide in a very deep, very dark hole until all politics (racial or otherwise) finally blow over or else blow everything up.)
Jan. 21st, 2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
See you there. We can struggle for the last loaf of bread.
Jan. 20th, 2007 07:39 pm (UTC)
Opaqueness and the "in"
If you do this again, you might want to consider Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. If nothing else, the story of the great cat massacre itself. It's a wonderful illustration of just how foreign a seemingly-same society can be, and how that moment of opaqueness, where we run face first into "wtf?" allows us to step back and realize the differences.

It's gruesome, historical, and very effective.

(The rest of the book is interesting, too, but not necessarily so violent. Darnton looks at things like the origins of fairy tales and meanings behind stories and the like - but in my opinion, the great cat massacre is nearly a perfect example of using genealogies to tell an effective story.)
Jan. 21st, 2007 12:48 am (UTC)
Re: Opaqueness and the "in"
just wanted to second this - wonderful book

- a passer-by
Jan. 21st, 2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Opaqueness and the "in"
Included! Great idea.
Jan. 20th, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you for compiling this.

Here by way of officialgaiman.
Jan. 21st, 2007 01:10 am (UTC)
If I can suggest a couple of other items, at least for consideration:

Henry Manne, Ancient Law — some day, writers will realize that not all legal disputes and systems resemble either Anglo-American common law or post-Roman civil law.

Basil H. Liddell-Hart, Strategy — some day, writers will realize that virtually all fantasy-based military stuff is wrong and stupid. Leaving aside the "numberless hordes" problem — remember, the entire English army at Agincourt was 6,000 or so — it's just appalling to see the basic strategic errors endemic to commercial fiction. (Sadly, that includes works by those who should know better, too.)

Jeremy Black, Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past — the title says it all. This is also an interesting contrast to Gladwin's East Is a Big Bird.

— CEP (not an LJ member)
Jan. 21st, 2007 02:11 am (UTC)
Tibet is one of those cultures which is stranger and more fascinating than anything anyone could make up. It's a shame that it is so often fictionalized by authors because their fiction is never as interesting as the real thing.

Unfortunately, most books on Tibet either gloss over the controversial bits in hopes of selling Tibetan religion, are extremely dense academic works with a narrow scope, or are old works by western explorers whose judgements were tainted by racism.

Tibet the RPG (www.tibetrpg.com (http://www.tibetrpg.com)) is a role-playing game, but it's all authentic Tibetan culture and beliefs, and is about the most user-friendly guide to Tibetan beliefs, without glossing over the controversial bits, that is available in English.
Jan. 21st, 2007 01:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the hint -- you're right about Tibet -- I remember a documentary about dying around the world, with an astonishing sequence of a death in Tibet, the body wrapped in funerary cloths, laid in the parlor of a wooden house, the monk coming to read the Book of the Dead -- which was not a book but a huge package of wooden tablets strung together with wrting on them, bound in yak hide and decorated. The undeparted spirit of the dead person expected to listen and learn.
Jan. 21st, 2007 03:17 am (UTC)
Damn you, Mr Crowley! Now I have another 20 books to read while constructing my AU, which was intended to trump all other AUs with its emphasis on Middle Eastern, South and East Asian cultures and peoples, with intricate storylines detailing resistance to patriarchy and imperialism of all origins. Please do NOT add any more scholarly studies by people of color, or else I'll be too paralyzed with research overload to even start writing. (Although I agree that the above commenter with concerns about the booklist dominated by white male authors has a point.)
Actually, that could be the subject of a post - when to stop researching and start writing. I'm here by way of Mr Gaiman's blog, by the way.
Jan. 21st, 2007 05:38 am (UTC)
I agree, and then I agree again.
I'm glad I read through the comments before posting, because it turns out that I'm not just seconding, I'm []thirding[/] the recommendation of Maya Deren's "Divine Horsemen" instead of/in addition to "Serpent and the Rainbow."

Secondly, I'd love to learn your opinion on when to stop researching and when to start writing in the fiction context. My background is in law (in legal research, actually - I'm a law librarian) and we generally start writing when your research starts to lead you in circles - when all the references are referring to things you've already read. Is this the same deal with fiction? I only write fiction as a hobby, but I stop researching for that when I get sick of it, and then make up the rest of the details. Do you ever research to the point that you're so tired of a subject you don't actually use any of your research in your writing? Morbid curiousity, maybe, but I think it's an interesting question.
Jan. 21st, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)
Re: I agree, and then I agree again.
My wife Laurie (a much better and more persistent and pro researcher than I am) goes by the same standard you do.

For fiction it's different. WHat you loook for is different -- the personal, the odd, the stuff that causes you to imagine scenes and moments and even bits of dialogue. That's sort of ongoing -- you can always get a charge from something unexpected, even if unscholarly. In researching Aegypt, all about magic and alchemy etc., I read all the good academic sources but got a rush from "Allan Okun's Compete Astrology" and the Firefox books, Robert Graves' whacko "White Goddess", etc.
Jan. 21st, 2007 05:21 am (UTC)
Amazon List
Mr. Crowley, can I have your permission to make this list into a list on Amazon.com? I think that it could reach a lot of people this way. Please email me at M.A.Fellows@comcast.net.

Jan. 21st, 2007 01:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Amazon List
I will put it to the Friends, whose work it largely is, and let you know -- I can't think of a reasone to object except the jealousy of academics wanting to hold their stuff close -- buit this isn't even my stuff.
Jan. 21st, 2007 09:21 pm (UTC)
Alternate earths
Not at all related to cultures, but of potential interest to sci-fi/fantasy writers is the "Planetocopia" website, which shows, among other things, detailed views and scenarios of what Earth would look like under some varying conditions, like if both poles were in the oceans, or if the terrain were reversed (depths become heights and vice versa), and future earths showing global warming and continental drift. Some of the scenarios go into considerable depth about what lifeforms would be viable where, where humans would migrate, etc.
Jan. 22nd, 2007 07:03 am (UTC)
I heard of, like, 5 of these...
Jan. 22nd, 2007 04:06 pm (UTC)
Was very interested to see this list; I'm an anthropologist and am so glad to see that our work is useful outside our own narrow world. An anthropological classic I want to suggest is _The spears of twilight: life and death in the Amazon jungle_ by Philippe Descola: a leetle technical, but a great explanation of an entirely different worldview that I'm sure would benefit your students. For something African, try Pat Vinnicombe's _People of the Eland_, and a fantastic ethnography of the Inuit is _Never in anger_ by Jean Briggs; again, how to get one's Euro head around the idea that "common sense" and "natural behaviour" are in fact very much culture-specific.
Jan. 23rd, 2007 07:30 pm (UTC)
if i may be so bold
as to suggest a further book (and a BBC documentary film also) called 'Guardians of the Flute: Idioms of Masculinity. by Gilbert Herdt'. It's a fascinating study of gender, ritualised homosexuality and initiation in New Guinea.
It's not at all salacious or judgemental and is heartily recommended.
Jan. 23rd, 2007 07:32 pm (UTC)
Re: if i may be so bold
sorry, very rude of me.
I should have signed that last message.
Jan. 24th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
and old but good addition.....as long as my old brain is remebering the correct book
"Women and Colonization"
by Mona Etienne and Eleanor Leacock

as I remember it was a decent book on the mechanisms of colonization and its effects on culture.
Figured it would be a good pick to go with the evil invading empire kind of fantasy writing.
Jan. 25th, 2007 04:45 pm (UTC)
Ghost Brides
Does anyone know of any good books about religious/spiritual beliefs in China? I'm specifically interested in the beliefs about "ghost" brides from this article http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070125/od_nm/china_murder_marriage_dc

I'm here from Neil Gaiman's blog and I figured this would be as good a place as any to ask. Thanks!
Jan. 27th, 2007 12:22 am (UTC)
another book to consider
I recommend BRIDGE OF BIRDS: A NOVEL OF AN ANCIENT CHINA THAT NEVER WAS by Barry Hughart. Comic, fantastic, irreverent saga of an unlikely tag-team searching for a magical ginseng plant. The sequels, at least two of which I read, were disappointing after this first fine read. The landscape, flower, food, garden, clothing descriptions were so vivid and at the same time dreamy that I often felt deliciously lost in a painting, or perhaps in an antique painted Chinese bowl.
Feb. 21st, 2007 01:01 am (UTC)
Re: another book to consider
Wandered over here and just saw this. Thanks for the suggestion!
May. 13th, 2009 11:46 am (UTC)
You sir have just provided inspiration, thank you.
May. 26th, 2009 06:02 am (UTC)
Just surfed in from Neil Gaiman's blog. As someone interested in anthropology and fantasy fiction this list is a treasure trove.:)

I have a couple of additions for you in terms of African religions:
Santeria Enthroned by David H Brown
Creole Religions of the Caribbean by Margarite Ferndandez-Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
( 48 comments — Leave a comment )