Since launching in April 2012 we’ve published over 30 short essays from academics on the books that have inspired them from their student days right through to teaching and writing today. Here are the top three most-read essays.

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The books that inspired John Van Reenen: “I think I always enjoy reading Conservative thinkers more than leftist ones. It’s much more fun to have books that really challenge your positions rather than confirming your prejudices”

Like most people I never consciously chose a career, let alone God help me in economics. When adults would ask me “what will you be when you grow up” my usual reply was “bio-chemist”. This had the intended effect of killing off further questions and wasn’t a complete lie. Naturally I hadn’t a clue what a bio-chemist was, but I did know it was the chosen area of study of my hero, Spider Man. Or more accurately, his alter-ego Peter Parker. All us geeks loved Peter – bullied at school, no girlfriend, etc. I was fortunate enough to read the first issues of Spider Man courtesy of the “Mighty World of Marvel”, cheap British reprints of the American originals. I would recommend reading the first 20 or so issues of the “Amazing Spider Man” by founder of Marvel comics Stan Lee and crazed artist Steve Ditko. The series was revolutionary in the early 1960s and broke the mode of clean cut heroes like Superman to appeal to. Peter had real life problems. Spidey and the low grade villains he foiled were surreal and compelling. Interested readers might like Essential Spider Man Volume 1Other must-read comics would include Alan Moore’sWatchmenFrom Hell and the V for Vendetta (forget the lousy film); Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Frank Miller’s Dark Night. Read the full essay…

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The books that inspired Ting Xu: “Law is not just located in the textbooks, cases, or statutes. Law is alive, and it is often changing”

 

Cultural Revolution propaganda poster, depicting Mao Zedong, above a group of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. The caption reads, “The People’s Liberation Army of China is a great school for Mao Zedong Thought.”

My earliest memory of books is in my grandparents’ study. Both taught in a Chinese university and survived the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Despite the abuse and humiliation they suffered as intellectuals in that ‘Dark Age’, they never lost their love and passion for books. That ‘Revolution’ also adversely impacted the next generation. As teenagers at that time, my parents lost the opportunity to go to university. The world outside China – in particular the ‘western’ world – was little known to them: the door of China was closed; books, as an important medium to disseminate information and knowledge, were also scarce. As a child, my father used to have to rent books from other people. And this expense constituted a significant portion of the limited family budget. Without enough money, my father even exchanged his lunch box for a little book from his friend (in that period between the late 1950s and the 1960s, many Chinese people did not have enough food to eat). Needless to say, in those afternoons, his stomach was empty but he always told me that this did not matter too much because his mind was full. Like many Chinese parents, my mother and father have put their hope in their children. Although they lived modestly, they never hesitated to buy books for me and to encourage me to explore and learn about a wider world. Read the full essay…

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The books that inspired Imani Perry: “Whitewashing Race by Michael K. Brown has a human sensitivity that is often lacking when we talk about race and power”

 

My mother recently reminded me that when I was 7 years old I announced to her that I wanted to read “all the books about famous Black people.” I suppose that was the first inkling that I was going to find my way to teaching in African American studies.

It was 1979, and I was witnessing the shift from the Black power era in which I had been taught to raise my right fist and say “all power to the people”, to a growing backlash against all the social justice movements of the 60s and 70s. This shift appeared in subtle and not so subtle ways. After summer vacation, I entered second grade to find “Disco sucks” scrawled all over the bathroom stalls at my predominantly white private school (striking a bit of fear in my heart as a small black girl who loved Donna Summer and Sylvester.) That November, Reagan announced his candidacy for president, and promised to take back America in the town where three civil rights workers, Goodman Schwerner, and Chaney, had been murdered. Even a child could see the issue of race was being intensely battled over in U.S. society. Read the full essay…

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