A Literary Review of 2016

The previous year has been so hectic, it has afforded precious little opportunity to conduct much reading. However, what follows, is a brief review of what I have read this year, in the hope it might inspire others and that I might equally be inspired by suggestions made by others.

  • Katharine Birbalsingh, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher
  • Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
  • David Goldblatt, The Games
  • David Goldblatt, The Game of Our Lives
  • Neil MacGregor, Memories of a Nation
  • Stuart Macintyre, A Concise History of Australia
  • Philip Short, Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity
  • Alwyn Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s
  • DT Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?
  • Jonathan Wilson, Angels with Dirty Faces

Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers

I am keen not to get to get embroiled in the heavy debates which have dominated teacher tweeters in recent weeks. Suffice it to say, this book has done much to make me question my teaching, consider how I would like to build on our own knowledge based curriculum, and what features I would be keen to avoid. I will say, however, that I particularly like this review by James Mannion.

Robert Caro, Master of the Senate 

This is the third volume, of four, published by Robert Caro. I always find it fascinating that it is taking Caro longer to document the of Lyndon B. Johnson than it actually took LBJ to live his life. I have read this book before. I constantly reel off anecdotes from this particular volume to my A2 Government & Politics set. Any teacher of ‘gov & pol’ really must read this. Any fan of history should also read this. Never will one find such a rich and detailed analysis of an individual life. As such, this series sets the benchmark by which any other depth studies should be judged. I cannot implore you to read this enough.

David Goldblatt, The Games and The Game of Our Lives 

It would be fair to say I have been inducted into a new ‘sports history’ genre of writing this year, starting with the Wilson book listed below. These two books, both winners of William Hill’s ‘sports book of the year’ award, are very different in character. The Game of Our Lives is a fascinating insight into British society in 2016, using football as its analytical lens. Goldblatt allows football crowds to demonstrate the conflicting national identities that exist within the United Kingdom, the politics of race and of gender. What truly fascinates, however, is Goldblatt’s conclusion that football clearly mirrors gloabl neoliberal economic trends, which the British public have bought into wholesale. However Goldblatt observes that in the realms of football, our view remains parochial and somewhat resistant to these trends. It is in this one significant way that footballing culture remains at odds with broader social, economic and political trends. It is a must read, undoubtedly one of my favourite books I have read this year.

The Games on the other hand take a much more implicit approach. Goldblatt develops a narrative of the development of the modern Olympic movement, and is much more implicit in allowing the reader to forge connections between the games and the societies in which they are made.

Neil MacGregor, Memories of a Nation

This is probably my favourite book of 2016, purely because of its unique and distinctive approach. MacGregor tells us the story of Germany through objects. With a unifying theme of Germanic history, this is an easier and more enjoyable read than perhaps his previous book A History of the World in 100 Objects which was more fragmented. One can only wonder how we might tell the story of Britain in 40 objects. MacGregor would have us believe that our selections would be too triumphalist, unlike the Germans who remain the only nation to dedicate monuments to their own shame.

Stuart MacIntyre, A Concise History of Australia 

I picked this book up in the hope it would assist my teaching of transportation as part of the GCSE crime and punishment course. This it certainly did, but I became fascinated by the broader arc of Australian history. Especially in this ‘post-Brexit’ world we are reaching out to our ‘brethren’ like Australia, feeling a strong sense of connection, certainly a stronger one than we do with our continental neighbours. However, it is interesting how this nation grew up in a much more liberal fashion, and how significant some of the differences have been between British and Australian history. Also of interest is how differently Australia has dealt with the issue of its native population to the American treatment. Neither are great, but Australia, superficially, seems to have done a better job of it.

Philip Short, A Study in Ambiguity 

I randomly selected this from the shelves of Waterstones in the hope for ‘something different.’ I certainly got that. Anybody interested in the differences in politics between Britain and our near neighbours ought to read this book. Mitterand is a genuinely fascinating individual. It is also remarkable how one could fake their own assassination attempt (the Conservatory Affair) and still reach high office. Could this happen in Britain? I think not.

Alwyn Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s

This book probably did more to shape my thinking than any other on this list. I grew up in the Blair years, and have always looked back on the Blair premiership with a nostalgic glow. This tome seriously challenged my outlook. I came to appreciate the broader legacy left by John Major and I wonder how far New Labour genuinely changed Britain. I read this alongside Dominic Sandbrook’s television series on the 1980s. Did New Labour simply ride the wave of Cool Britannia and extend Major’s public service revolution in response to trends arising from the public themselves? Turner doesn’t leave us with a clear verdict on that, but this is a stimulating first attempt to write the history of Britain in the 1990s, which will help to shape the parameters of debate for years to come.

DT Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?

I first read this in January, in the hope that it would offer me a more traditional outlook on the purposes of education in contrast to the more progressive ideas I was hearing on my MA. I was not disappointed. I have found this book useful in providing an intellectual underpinning to my knowledge-led approach to teaching history and offered useful thoughts on how I might further enhance and refine my teaching. In response to this book, I became an ardent champion of the idea of ‘teaching for memory’ and argued for a stronger focus on them in our school’s CPD programme and teaching and learning policy. This has since emerged in our school and I am going to claim credit for it: post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Jonathan Wilson, Angels with Dirty Faces

I came across this book entirely by accident. Well. It came up as an ‘Amazon suggestion’ based upon my previous purchase. This is a fabulous history of Argentina interwoven with a history of Argentinian football. Other than the Falklands War and Christine Kirchner, I knew very little about Argentina, or South America. This book opened my eyes and was a useful induction to the history of this continent (I would very much enjoy other ‘easy going’ suggestions). It was also the first book that I read which meaningfully engaged me with ‘sports history’ as a genre. I have always been attracted to the idea of using sport as a lens into the past. This book has rekindled my interest in finding some ways of squeezing it into my teaching. I have even wondered about how feasible a KS4 ‘change & continuity development study’ would be using ‘sport through time’ as its theme after my head of department suggested that I would be the man to create such a specification. Any readers with thoughts on this, please get in touch.

I warmly invite readers to share their own thoughts on the books mentioned above, or indeed suggest further reading that I might enjoy.

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