Allen Lane

A History of Masculinity begins with the observation that we live in a global patriarchy that restricts the rights and freedoms of women, and that remedying this situation is a matter of urgent concern. To that end, ‘we need egalitarian men who care more about respect than power’. Ivan Jablonka acknowledges the accusation that men who are active in the feminist movement simply amplify sexist dynamics by ‘speaking in women’s place, as usual’, only to dismiss it summarily. He believes that a book such as his is vital because the feminist cause is ‘a fight that men have shunned’ until now. He hopes to correct his own failings and encourage other men to be ‘good guys’ in the battle for gender justice.

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Shon Faye, trained as a lawyer before moving into advocacy work, brings her multi-disciplinary background into an unflinching look at where trans people in the United Kingdom are now, what lead them here, and where we go next. Consciously forgoing memoir, Faye takes a systematic approach to learning from history, clearly laying out the case for trans liberation.

In the opening pages, we learn of the suicide of Lucy Meadows, a young teacher and a trans woman. As Faye unpicks the immediate and circumstantial paths that lead to this event, we glimpse a tapestry of transphobia that, by the conclusion, is thoroughly unravelled. The introduction presents a litany of trans people (both alive and dead) bearing the brunt of endless scrutiny. The next seven chapters give voice to the conditions faced by trans people, and how we might glimpse liberation through the muck of a transphobic society.

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Picture, poem, or puzzle? The Chinese written character has been one of the most enduring obstacles to and catalysts for intercultural appreciation. When, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wanted to demonstrate the relative backwardness of Oriental thought, he could find no better exhibit than the form of its writing. Attached as it was to ‘the sensuous image’, the putatively pictographic Chinese character forfeited access to the conceptual abstraction that afforded European thinkers their passports to the ‘free, ideal realm of Spirit’.

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‘Freedom’ is a word that slips off the tongue easily. As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes in his essay ‘Freedom and Revolution’: ‘No word has been more cheapened by misuse. No word has experienced more of the tortuous redefinitions of politicians.’ In the essay, MacIntyre turns to Karl Marx to recover the idea that human beings are essentially free. With the same source of inspiration, but through a poignant and often funny memoir of coming to age in state-socialist Albania, Lea Ypi’s Free attempts the same task.

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Paul Davies, the British physicist who brightened up the Australian science scene when he was a professor at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, is currently director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. Beyond describes itself as ‘a pioneering center devoted to confronting the really big questions of science and philosophy’. It also aims to present science publicly ‘as a key component of our culture and of significance to all humanity’, something Davies has been doing for thirty years, in popular talks, articles, and books such as About Time (1995).

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There really isn’t another biographer like Joseph Frank – nor a biography to place beside his 2,400-page, five-volume life (1976–2002) of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the wildest and most contradictory of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Frank set out in the late 1970s – a time when historically grounded literary scholarship was losing favour in the academy – to fix Dostoevsky (1821–81) in the complex matrices of Russian history, politics, religion, and culture. An author who had been read in the English-speaking world as a hallucinatory thinker, somewhat detached from reality, could now be seen as one fully imbricated in his era and milieu.

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In this accessible contribution to the burgeoning literature on democracy’s travails and what to do about them, Jan-Werner Müller makes a case for hard borders and fundamental principles. These are not the hard borders desired by authoritarian leaders. Instead, Müller asks us to go back to basics (he uses the concept riduzione verso il principo) to establish some hard borders in our understanding – and hence practice – of democracy. Those borders should be drawn around the fundamental democratic principles of uncertainty and equality. At its most basic, this is a call to reimagine and reinvest in the intermediary institutions of representative democracy – particularly parties and autonomous media – to restore the infrastructure of democratic politics in the developed world.

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How will the year 2020 be remembered? No doubt the headline event was the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered schools, factories, and hospitality services, leading to a contraction of per capita income for ninety-five percent of the world’s economies. For Europe, the acrimonious exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union would serve as a stark reminder of how fragile supranational institutions are in the face of popular fury. Following the murder of George Floyd, similar rage at police brutality marked a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which preceded a combative presidential election that denied Donald Trump a second term. And the world endured one of its hottest years on record, with surface temperatures reaching nearly one degree above the 141-year average as fires burned through Australia and the United States.

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In The Aristocracy of Talent, Adrian Wooldridge cites the Chinese civil service exams as a forerunner of the modern world. Early European visitors observed the examination halls scattered across China, with throngs of men young and old cramming as each three-year cycle of exams approached, the glittering careers in government awaiting the lucky few, the consolation prizes as a local scribe or teacher awaiting the many who failed. Children would start studying at the age of six for the chance to pass a local exam and go to the provincial centre for the national papers. Estimates suggest that two and a half million Chinese men sat each round of exams, in carefully invigilated centres across the empire. For the successful, further exams determined promotion through the ranks to the very highest offices.

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By any measure, Amartya Sen’s academic career has been a glittering one. A professor of economics at Harvard University for more than three decades, Sen has also held appointments at Cambridge University, Oxford University, the Delhi School of Economics, and Jadavpur University. In 1998, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his contribution to welfare economics, including work on social choice, welfare measurement, and poverty. The same year, he was appointed as the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (the first Asian head of an Oxbridge college). He has also written extensively on economics, philosophy, and Indian society and culture.

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