Lists of books to read proliferate before the summer and winter vacations. Summer reading lists tend to be the lightest, as the assumption (at least in the West) is that people want a frothy novel to put on their faces and fall asleep when out on a beach. Winter reading lists tend to have a bit more substance, but still seldom contain serious studies. The assumption in this case—and not just in the West—is that people do not want to engage with serious issues for Christmas and New Year.

Middle-‘merch’: Ever popular.

At a time when book titles containing the word “empire" make one shudder or cringe (and think of Niall Ferguson), Burbank and Cooper’s Empires in World History is a highly readable and well-modulated exploration of imperial power across the ages. Starting with ancient empires in India, China and Europe, covering Mongol, Ottoman, Spanish and other empires, and engaging finally with the current scenario, this is a history book that puts many matters in context. Even when one does not agree with its readings, one is left informed and illuminated. Written with the undergraduate history student in mind, this 511-page book is nevertheless a great read for anyone interested in how our world has come into being. It won the 2011 World History Association Book Prize, and deservedly so.

Morey and Yaqin’s Framing Muslims is written for a more academic readership, but it too should be of interest to readers who do not confuse books with sunshades. In it the two authors dissect the ways in which stereotypes depicting Muslims as an inherently problematic presence in the West are constructed and deployed. One of the book’s strengths is the authors’ precise exploration of how such supposedly “crude" stereotypes also come, in complex ways, from highly intelligent elites. A book to read.

In Dilemmas and Connections, the Canadian philosopher Taylor can also be said to engage with many of the matters that concern these two books—but at a more philosophical level. Whether expositing the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer or discussing language, otherness, religion or nationalism, Taylor writes with lucidity and perception. Take, for instance, the conceptual ease with which he combines the matter of understanding and identity in a post-colonial context: “Real understanding always has an identity cost—something the ruled have often painfully experienced. It is a feature of tomorrow’s world that this cost will now be less unequally distributed." One wishes these lines could be inscribed on blackboards all over places like Denmark and Holland.

Middlemarch ketchup

One of my favourite English novels, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874) has the reputation of being a heavy work in some sunny circles, and definitely a very literary one. As such, it was quite eye-opening for me to read Simon Frost’s new academic study, The Business of the Novel: Economics, Aesthetics and the Case of Middlemarch. Frost examines the history of the composition of this tome, and its consumption—including Middlemarch ketchup and Middlemarch matchboxes!

Of course, one knows that many of the germs of contemporary consumerism lie in the industrial capitalism of the Victorian Age, but it is chastening (and somehow heartening) to learn that even great works like Middlemarch have not been exempted from such viruses.

Tabish Khair is the author of the poetry collection Man of Glass and the novel The Thing about Thugs.

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