Academic Book Week, which has run from Monday 23 to Saturday 28 January 2017, has been a week of events – across the UK – celebrating the diversity and influence of academic books. The week has been co-ordinated by representatives from the publishing, bookselling, library and academic worlds, and I have served on the Academic Book Week steering committee as a representative of the British Academy – one of the bodies supporting the Week.
The British Academy has made a particular contribution to the Week by publishing an ‘Academic Books’ special issue of the British Academy Review, which includes some perspectives on the ‘Academic Book of the Future’. The issue has been supplemented during the course of the Week by further pieces on the British Academy Blog and a podcast. All of this content can be found at http://www.britac.ac.uk/academic-book-week
To raise awareness – and provoke discussion – of how academic research and thought have helped shape and define British society and culture, a few days ahead of the Week a list was published of ‘20 academic books that shaped modern Britain’ (the list can be found here), and the public was invited to vote for the book that they thought had been most influential.
The poll results were announced on Wednesday 25 January. The winner was The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, by John Maynard Keynes (1936). The close runner-up was The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983). In third place was The Making of the English Working Class, by E.P. Thompson (1963). As Keynes, Hobsbawm, Ranger and Thompson had all been elected Fellows of the British Academy, this result is a pleasing validation of the humanities and social sciences disciplines promoted by the Academy.
Where did that list of 20 books come from? At the beginning of December 2016, an open invitation was issued to academics across the UK to nominate the academic books that in their opinion had shaped modern Britain. Overall 128 books were suggested. As part of this initial stage, I took advantage of my day job at the British Academy to solicit suggestions from a range of Fellows of the British Academy – and these busy senior academics were gratifyingly willing to play the game and come back with very thoughtful ideas. Indeed, 12 of the books that made it onto the final list of 20 had been suggested by at least one Fellow of the British Academy.
Lists like these can be stimulating (cues for debate), educating (pointers to less familiar books) – and undoubtedly irritating (‘Why these 20 titles?’). The Academic Book Week steering committee had an almost impossible task to cut the 128 books down to just 20 – with far too many competing factors to be weighed in trying to achieve some sort of appropriate balance in the list.
As such, many incredibly eligible books that had been nominated could not be accommodated in the final list of 20. These included works by the following former Fellows of the British Academy: A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Asa Briggs, Hedley Bull, Alfred Gell, J.A.G. Griffith, Thomas S. Kuhn, F.S.L. Lyons, Nikolaus Pevsner, R.H. Tawney, and Richard Titmuss.
But the list has achieved its aim in provoking discussion and media attention (I myself was grilled about it on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme). And stimulating interest in academic books is what Academic Book Week has been all about.
James Rivington is Head of Academic Publications and Events at the British Academy