HSE Scholars Share Reading Recommendations for the Winter Break
Before the long winter break, the HSE news service asked researchers and lecturers at the university for recommendation on what to read during the holidays. We asked them to name two books each, one that they have read ‘for pleasure’ and another one related to their area of professional interest that is easily accessible for everyone. The result is that our selection includes detective stories, forecasts on the development of a civilization with artificial intelligence, a novel on experimental relations between four adults, and a book about primates, which takes a curious look at human behaviour.
PhD, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Two vaguely Eurasia-related books students might enjoy are ‘The Russian Debutante's Handbook’ by Gary Shteyngart (fiction) and ‘The Orientalist’ by Tom Reiss (nonfiction).
‘The Orientalist’ is a non-fiction story that traces the very interesting life of a man named Lev Nussimbaum, who was born into pre-revolutionary and oil-driven Baku, knew Stalin during the latter's time as a bank-robber and house-thief, is mostly likely the author of the classic Azeri novel Ali and Nino, and reinvented himself as an Orientalist named Essed Bey in Berlin between the world wars.
‘The Russian Debutante's Handbook’ is one of the funniest novels I have ever read, and it tells the story of a Russian-American loser who ends up on the run from a gangster in New York and finds himself in a barely-disguised 1990s Prague. In Prague he exploits Western tourists and students but the gangster is hot on his trail... It is a great novel depicting low-quality, post-communist cheaters.
Assistant Professor at the School of Media (Faculty of Communications, Media, and Design)
For undergraduate students, I would recommend reading ‘The Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. What makes this novel a must-read book for any thinking person is its philosophical essence. Exploring two famous views on the human nature - Locke's and Hobbs's - the author invites the reader to make his or her own judgment on whether humans are peaceful creatures and peace will naturally prevail, or whether mankind is naturally evil and inclined to war with peace being achieved only through strict legal control. The book explores both views, and after you finish reading it, you are better equipped to come to your own conclusion.
Graduate students could read ‘One-dimensional Man’ by Herbert Marcuse, which is one of the most influential philosophical books of the 20th century. The author explores the totalitarian nature of advanced capitalist society and its ideology of ‘happy consumerism’. In Marcuse's view, it is this pervasive ideology that makes the citizens of late industrial society ‘one-dimensional’: unable to evaluate critically the negative transformation of their human condition. In the midst of the current global crisis, the issues discussed by the author seem to be no less contemporary than they were in the 1960s, when the book was published.
Associate Professor at the School of History, HSE Tenured Professor
For pleasure, I would recommend ‘The Pillow Book’ by Sei Shōnagon. It was written exactly a thousand years ago, but is as easy to read as Yasunari Kawabata or Gabriel García Márquez. It all happened very long ago, but the joys and sorrows are all very common. This is what you need in our difficult times to distract yourself without drifting far away.
For those interested in learning more about medieval art, I would recommend ‘Believing and Seeing. The Art of Gothic Cathedrals by Roland Recht’. Intended for a wide audience, this is nevertheless a professional view on the Western European medieval culture reflected in stone and stained glass, but also in Christian rituals and the pursuits by visionaries, saints, theologians, and scholastics. It includes poetry, visual culture, and descriptions of certain monuments. It shows where modern Europe comes from. Only the first several dozen pages might intimidate an unprepared reader. Before suggesting his own model, the author presents a history of arts, beginning from Giorgio Vasari and ending with his teachers’ generation. Readers may wish to simply skip this section and return to it in the end.
Assistant Professor at the Public Policy Department (Faculty of Social Sciences)
For a non-fiction book I’d recommend ‘A Choice of Weapons’ by Gordon Parks. This book was first published in 1966 and republished in 2010. It is one of the best self-improvement books I have ever read. It shows what courage and determination can do in the face of adversity.
As for fiction, I’d choose ‘The Happy Prince’, and other stories, by Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde was not only a great prose writer, but he was also a great humanist. During this time of the year when we are called to show compassion for our fellow human beings, this book offers great storylines.
Professor at the Faculty of Economics
Once I was very impressed by Plutarch's ‘Lives’. While I was reading this book, I was enjoying a conversation with a very smart partner. Despite the fact that he lived 2,000 years ago, we, the people of the 21st century, are not smarter than he was. We simply know more now. There’s no need to read all the three volumes; there’s something for everyone in each of them.
Speaking of fiction, I have a lot of recommendations for students. Of course, it would be good to read Shakespeare, his sonnets and tragedies. Surprisingly, when sometimes in my lectures I quote ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Hamlet’, I see on their faces that they are not familiar to them.
As for non-fiction, I’d like to recommend ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. In a very understandable way, this book describes how science works, how it develops and what stages it passes. I believe that this knowledge would be very useful, especially for senior students.
Leading Research Fellow at the Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities
Winter break is a very special period in our lives, when the tempo and rhythm change and there is the feeling of a pause, a time lapse where one can hide for some time. This is a good opportunity to experiment with time and treat yourself to something unusual, such as reading a good modernist novel. Thomas Mann is the ideal author for this – not only because he is one of the best storytellers in world literature, but also because that time itself, our experience and perception of time is one of his key themes. If you are ready for more, read ‘The Magic Mountain’. Its hero, a young engineer from Hamburg, is trapped for seven years in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Alps, finding himself in a time lapse more serious than ours. During this time he has to think about some things that would never enter his mind in the everyday pace of life.
If you don’t have much time, treat yourself to ‘The Holy Sinner’. This is a thrilling retelling of a medieval legend, full of fantasy, irony, as well as strange and funny plot twists. Thomas Mann’s fantasy Middle Ages are well capable of being an alternative to today’s stories in the fantasy genre. They connect the past and the present of European culture. And maybe they do it even better than the writer himself intended when he was finishing the novel.
Speaking about good books in my professional field that have recently been published, I am pleased to recommend a book by a historian of popular culture, Michael Saler, ‘As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality’ (Oxford University Press, 2012). The author grows on you from the first line of the introduction where he writes: ‘I have spent many years not writing this book; somehow there was always just one more fantasy novel requiring “research”’. The main characters of Saler’s book are Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu, hobbits and elves, as well as me and you, collective inhabitants of virtual worlds, people who know the geography of Westeros and the culture of the peoples of Middle-earth. The history of the ‘public spheres of the imagination’ since the end of the 19th century, written by Saler, is another recent book that rethinks the place and role of mass literature in modern culture. Michael Saler speaks about virtual worlds of fantasy and adventure as a special literary space that develops in its inhabitants an ability to ironically experience multiple realities, and to consciously live in an ‘as if’ regime that creates a new, specifically modern, configuration of imagination and rational thinking skills. This is a very modern book about modernity.
Assistant Professor at the School of Psychology (Faculty of Humanities)
For a non-fiction book, I would recommend ‘The Island of the Colorblind’ by Oliver Sacks. The book has a certain scientific aspect, but is rather fun and is also easy. Unfortunately, I haven't read any fiction books this year, but in general, I would recommend the novel ,The Woman in the Dunes, by Kōbō Abe. Students can find it on Amazon Kindle and also its movie on YouTube. I haven't seen the movie, but I will during the break.
Dean of the Faculty of Computer Science
I’d like to recommend the book ‘The Fall of Constantinople 1453’ by Steven Runciman. Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman (1903-2000) described this crucial historic moment quite vividly. He showed what Constantinople was like under Constantine XI Palaiologos, as well as the history of Patriarch Gennadius II Scholarius, the assault on the city on May 29, 1453 by 21-year-old Mehmed the Conqueror’s troops, and the reaction to these events in Rome and Italian republics. I bought this book and decided to look through it in the evening; I ended up reading it until dawn before I finished. This has never happened to me, even when I was young. I read it several years ago, but the images of Megas Doux Loukas Notaras and Giustiniani from Genoa are still bright in my head. This is a brilliant example of a professional historian’s work that is interesting for a wide audience.
It’s difficult for me to recommend a pop-science book. I’m a big fan of the two-volume book ‘Finite Fields’ by Rudolf Lidl and Harald Niederreiter. I bought it when I was a senior in high school, and I keep coming back to it regularly. The theory of finite fields is a beautiful mathematical theory. Even a prepared high school student can understand it, let alone someone who’s taken a basic algebra course. Finite fields are also called ‘Galois fields’ after Évariste Galois, who died in a duel at the age of 20. This science is forever young. The book has a lot of advantages, including a clear explanation of the concept, numerous examples and problems, a good description of applications of finite fields in geometry, combinatorial fields, coding theory, and other areas. This is the kind of mathematics that is useful in computer science.
Director of Department of Educational Programmes (Institute of Education)
Although I’m not a big fan of science fiction, not long ago I discovered Iain M. Banks and his ‘The Culture’ series. Banks has an incredible ability to create strange worlds with a level of detail that most writers use to describe the real world. Sometimes I even wanted to ask the author what drug he took to have such vivid visions. Unfortunately, Banks died in 2013 and his secret died with him. His story occasionally has problems, but his style is flawless. He also made some convincing forecasts about how a liberal democratic civilization would develop in a future with artificial intelligence.
In terms of education studies, I’d like to recommend the book ‘Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education’ by Larry Cuban, a Stanford professor. The author tries to understand why, despite multiple and expensive reforms, the practice of teaching at schools remains almost unchanged. He developed a theory of ‘dynamic conservatism’. Teachers haven’t changed their practices; rather, they actively implement the innovations that help them maintain stability. While a missile launch or an intracranial surgery are complicated processes, education is a complex one. In the first case, you have to follow the instructions, but in the second case, there are a lot of uncontrolled factors that you have to react to in order to bring the system back to balance. Reformers tend to handle education as a complicated rather than a complex process, which causes opposition from the teachers.
Associate Professor at the School of Philology
In the fiction category I would recommend Goethe’s novel ‘Elective Affinities’, which is about experimental relations between four adults. It has a classically calibrated structure and an intriguing plot that hides the most complicated symbolism and agenda. Goethe himself insisted that this book should be read at least twice.
As for non-fiction, I would rather choose a cultural studies book than a philological one. My choice is ‘The Long Shadow of the Past’ by Aleida Assmann. This is a very important work about issues that are so difficult to discuss calmly in Russia.
Head of the School of Psychology (Faculty of Humanities)
If you are into intellectual detectives, try to solve a puzzle that requires some knowledge about how our brain works. Untangle a horrifying detective story that takes place on Christmas Eve on a small island in the Baltic Sea (‘Ostrov’ by Vasily Klucharev. ArsisBooks, 2015 (in Russian)).
My library is always missing books by Frans de Waal – people who borrow them hardly ever bring them back, since they are very interesting reading. De Waal is the world’s most renowned primatologist. Primate behaviour helps us understand human nature. After looking at them, it is exciting to look at people around you. Their status, morality, and decision making are very similar to ours. (Frans de Waal, ‘Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved’).
Leading Research Fellow at the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences
Unfortunately, I’ve only been reading very specialized books recently. But you would probably be interested in the book ‘The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union’ by Serhii Plokhy. This is a book by a renowned American historian about the final months of the Soviet Union, about the events that still cause huge interest and are closely related to our life today. The book is very well written and is based on documents, including new documents from American archives. It is an exciting and easy read. I think that the scene suggested by the author will surprise many readers and make them contemplate how complicated Russian history is.
Editor’s note: Since Prof. Khlevniuk named only one book, we’d like to add his own book to this list, ‘Stalin, New Biography of a Dictator’.
Associate Professor at the School of Cultural Studies (Faculty of Humanities)
‘Moscow Diary’ by Walter Benjamin is truly reading for Christmas. It is about Moscow seen by a European intellectual in 1926; about the Russian past, which is so diversely reflected in the Russian present; about snow and frost; and about love, sorrow and gloom. It is one of keenest autobiographical texts of the last century.
‘Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of Modernity: Money, Girls, and Dandies of the Victorian Era’ by Kirill Kobrin (in Russian) is a brilliant, smart, and easily read book. It is also full of Christmas spirit, since it was in the Victorian age when the winter season traditions that are common today evolved. I would recommend it to everyone interested in contemporary culture and its origins.