Several university press catalogs for spring 2022 are still in limbo—stuck somewhere along a supply chain, perhaps. But a sizable batch has just arrived. Here’s an update to my previous roundup of books forthcoming in the new year.
The titles below are all from presses not covered in that earlier column. They seem to connect up like so many responses to the weird decade now underway. As usual with this kind of survey, quoted material here comes from catalog descriptions. Publication dates are taken from the presses’ websites, which are generally more reliable than those of online retailers.
It is now two years since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported—and still too soon to think of it in the past tense. Elke Krasny’s Living with an Infected Planet: COVID-19 Feminism and the Global Frontline of Care (Transcript Verlag, distributed by Columbia University Press, February) characterizes the situation as “an unprecedented crisis of care” on a global scale. The volume offers “a feminist mapping of key terms and key images defining the ‘pandemicscape,’ looking at a wide range of sources including media coverage; policy by the WHO, the UN, and the IMF; recommendations by NGOs and feminist organizations; as well as ways of seeing care in photography and painting.”
One of the locales under siege in the early days of the pandemic was the nursing home in Texas where Robert Zaretsky began working as a volunteer when COVID hit it in 2020. His book Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague (University of Chicago Press, April) recalls the “chronic loneliness” of the place “and then, inevitably, the deaths of many residents.” He grapples with the experience by returning to “the testimony of six writers on their own times of plague: Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Michel de Montaigne, Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley and Albert Camus.”
Jack Miles and Mark C. Taylor—scholars of religion, “one a Christian and the other an atheist,” and “close friends for 50 years”—exchanged daily letters as the crisis unfolded, now collected as A Friendship in Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life (Columbia University Press, June). “Amid the menace of the pandemic and the unceasing political turmoil”—the latter culminating in the murderous clown insurrection of Jan. 6—the authors “debate the lessons that a catastrophic present can teach about the future and how to read, think, live and face up to death.”
Treating the pandemic as part of a convergence of stressors, along with “the student debt crisis, the murder of George Floyd and the insurrection of January 6,” Lynn Pasquerella’s What We Value: Public Health, Social Justice, and Educating for Democracy (University of Virginia Press, January) finds that the overlapping crises compel us to ask “what we owe each other as human beings, a task made only more difficult by entrenched political polarization.” The book incorporates “examples from medical schools and university hospitals across the country” to make a case for the liberal arts as training in critical thinking skills. “To find meaning, make decisions and rebuild civil discourse,” those skills are indispensable.
Another way to put it is that they are necessary to clarify our values. How to understand the relationship between economic value and the other varieties (moral, cultural, etc.) is a perennial line of inquiry that Stefan Ecks joins—at a monographic, case-study level—in Living Worth: Value and Values in Global Pharmaceutical Markets (Duke University Press, May). Ecks focuses on the use of antidepressants in India, considering “the myriad ways antidepressants come to have value, from their ability to help make one’s life worth living to the wealth they generate in the multibillion-dollar global pharmaceutical market.” In the author’s parlance, value is the product of “biocommensurations,” or “transactions that aim or claim to make life better,” which are “forms of social, medical, and corporate actions that allow value to be measured, exchanged, substituted and redistributed.”
Life constantly changes, and death with it. Contributors to Shannon Lee Dawdy and Tamara Kneese’s edited collection The New Death: Mortality and Death Care in the Twenty-First Century (University of New Mexico Press, April) bring “ethnographic, historical, and media-based approaches” to understanding the “new and different ways of treating the body and memorializing the dead [that] are proliferating across global cities.” The emerging “attitudes and practices around mortality and mourning” in question range “from the possibilities of digitally enhanced afterlives to industrialized ‘necro-waste,’” which sounds distressing.
Another clutch of books considers the pandemic’s impact on how people keep body and soul together. With millions of office workers who started teleworking in 2020 still doing so for at least part of the week, Matthew E. Kahn’s Going Remote: How the Flexible Work Economy Can Improve Our Lives and Our Cities (University of California Press, April) inquires into the long-term effects on “workers’ quality of life, the profitability of firms, and the economic geography of our cities and suburbs.” The author’s perspective has a celebratory quality. Among the windfalls “significantly improv[ing] the standard of living for millions of people by expanding personal freedom,” he finds “especially valuable opportunities” opening up “for flexibility and equity in the lives of women, minorities, and young people, and even for those whose jobs do not allow them to work from home.”
With a more wary attitude toward the idea of a post-pandemic tide lifting all boats, Isabelle Ferreras and two other co-editors assemble papers by a dozen women in the social sciences in Democratize Work: The Case for Reorganizing the Economy (University of Chicago Press, May). Early 2020 revealed a potentially explosive contradiction: among those tagged as “essential workers” for keeping things running during the shutdown were “society’s lowest paid and least empowered.” The contributors advocate “adjustments in how we organize work” that “can lead to sweeping reconciliation” by “treating workers as citizens” while also “treating the planet as something to be cared for.”
A similarly reformist vibe comes from the description of Roberta Iversen’s What Workers Say: Decades of Struggle and How to Make Real Opportunity Now (Temple University Press, June), which takes part of its inspiration from Studs Terkel’s oral history Working. The author “interviewed more than 1,200 workers” about the conditions and changes at their workplaces since 1980, exposing “how transformations in the political economy of waged work have shrunk or eliminated opportunity for workers, families, communities and productivity.” (See also James Macmurty.) The author makes “an innovative proposal for compensated civil labor that could enable workers, their communities, labor market organizations and the national infrastructure to actually flourish.”
Being “passionate about your work” might seem like one of the perks of white-collar employment, but Renyi Hong puts it under critical inspection in Passionate Work: Endurance after the Good Life (Duke University Press, June). It has trickled down from the world of professionals “following their bliss” to the workforce of educated but precarious labor. Hong understands the ethos of passion-about-work as “an affective project” (in other words, a process eliciting and channeling emotional response) “that encourages people to endure economically trying situations like unemployment, job change, repetitive and menial labor, and freelancing.”
It is “deployed as a means to build resilience and mend disappointments with our experiences of work,” sustaining “a condition of cruel optimism.” Those who recall the old comic strip Peanuts may be reminded of Lucy’s unbroken record of inspiring Charlie Brown’s passionate determination to kick a football she always pulled away at the last second, year after year.