What Are the Most Influential Books Written by Scholars in the Last 20 Years?: Leading Academics Pick “The New Canon”

It’s a fraught time to be an aca­d­e­m­ic. Bud­gets have been slashed, depart­ments dec­i­mat­ed, polit­i­cal bat­tles sen­sa­tion­al­ized by par­ti­san oppor­tunists, social media posts inten­si­fied into test cas­es for speech. Yet as cor­po­ratism and cul­ture wars have pushed their way into acad­e­mia in the past twen­ty plus years, more schol­ar­ship has seemed to make its way out into the main­stream, with books by aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ri­ans like Eric Fon­er and Ibram X. Ken­di, lit­er­ary schol­ars like Stephen Green­blatt and bell hooks, soci­ol­o­gists like Robert Put­nam, sci­en­tists like Richard Dawkins, econ­o­mists like Thomas Piket­ty, legal schol­ars like Michelle Alexan­der, and so on, top­ping best­seller lists and win­ning Nation­al Book Awards.

Such books dis­till dif­fi­cult ideas with­out dumb­ing them down, in acces­si­ble and often urgent prose. Their pop­u­lar­i­ty speaks to how they address the press­ing issues of their times, and under­cuts the stereo­type of aca­d­e­mics as jar­gon-spew­ing, out-of-touch inhab­i­tants of ivory tow­ers. And they often have the pow­er to not only rad­i­cal­ly alter pub­lic dis­course, but to inspire mass move­ments and shift pub­lic pol­i­cy.

Most of the more than 15,000 aca­d­e­m­ic books pub­lished each year—by uni­ver­si­ty press­es or tiny independents—reach only “their core audi­ence of dis­ci­pli­nary spe­cial­ists.” A few res­onate out­side their fields yet still fail to find an audi­ence out­side high­er edu­ca­tion cir­cles (nor are they real­ly meant to).

But some books by schol­ars, like those by the authors named above, “enter the pub­lic con­scious­ness,” writes The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, and thus deserve to be described as “influ­en­tial” in a broad sense, “like On the Ori­gin of Species or Das Kap­i­tal or The Inter­pre­ta­tion of Dreams,” as Yale pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy Paul Bloom writes (while also point­ing out that none of these books’ authors were pro­fes­sion­al aca­d­e­mics). Under the ban­ner of form­ing a “New Canon,” the Chron­i­cle asked Bloom and a num­ber of oth­er scholars—including Deb­o­rah Tan­nen, pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics and author of sev­er­al best-sell­ing pop­u­lar books—to name what they believed were the most influ­en­tial schol­ar­ly books of the past 20 years.

Each respon­dent was asked “to select books—academic or not, but writ­ten by scholars—from with­in or out­side their own fields.” Each wrote a brief defense of their choice and, in some cas­es, of their cri­te­ria for “influ­ence.” You can read these blurbs at the Chron­i­cle’s site, and just below, see a full list of the picks. Some of the books, the Chron­i­cle con­cedes, fall “slight­ly out­side our time frame, but we includ­ed them any­way.”

Some of them are typ­i­cal­ly aca­d­e­m­ic works, like Mark Greif’s choice of Eve Kosof­sky Sedgwick’s Touch­ing Feel­ing, a book unlike­ly to inspire a Net­flix doc­u­men­tary. Oth­ers, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an impe­tus for Ava DuVernay’s 13th, were writ­ten for the widest of read­er­ships. Do these dis­tinc­tions make books like Alexan­der more “influ­en­tial” than those like Sedgewick’s? It all depends, I sup­pose, on what we mean by the word—and by what, or whom, or how, or why, or how many we think need to be influ­enced.

The Bet­ter Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker

Bowl­ing Alone: The Col­lapse and Revival of Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty, by Robert Put­nam

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incar­cer­a­tion in the Age of Col­or­blind­ness, by Michelle Alexan­der

The His­to­ry Man­i­festo, by Jo Gul­di and David Armitage

Freaks of For­tune: The Emerg­ing World of Cap­i­tal­ism and Risk in Amer­i­ca, Jonathan Levy

What Art Is, by Arthur Dan­to

Homo Deus: A Brief His­to­ry of Tomor­row, by Yuval Noah Harari

Killing the Black Body: Race, Repro­duc­tion, and the Mean­ing of Lib­er­ty, by Dorothy Roberts

The Feel­ing of What Hap­pens: Body and Emo­tion in the Mak­ing of Con­scious­ness, by Anto­nio R. Dama­sio

Pay­ing for the Par­ty: How Col­lege Main­tains Inequal­i­ty, by Eliz­a­beth A. Arm­strong and Lau­ra T. Hamil­ton

A Brief His­to­ry of NeoLib­er­al­ism, by David Har­vey

Crit­i­cal Race The­o­ry: The Key Writ­ings That Formed The Move­ment, by Kim­ber­le Cren­shaw and Neil Gotan­da

The Rest­less Clock: A His­to­ry of the Cen­turies-Long Argu­ment over What Makes Liv­ing Things Tick, by Jes­si­ca Riskin

Touch­ing Feel­ing: Affect, Ped­a­gogy, Per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty, by Eve Kosof­sky Sedg­wick

Ella Bak­er and the Black Free­dom Move­ment: A Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­t­ic Vision, by Bar­bara Rans­by

Truth and Truth­ful­ness: An Essay in Geneal­o­gy, by Bernard Williams

War Pow­ers: How the Impe­r­i­al Pres­i­den­cy Hijacked the Con­sti­tu­tion, by Peter Irons

Age of Frac­ture, by Daniel T. Rodgers

Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Chore­og­ra­phy of Cit­i­zen­ship, by Daniel T. Rodgers

The Arg­onauts, by Mag­gie Nel­son

Read about all of the books at the Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 20 Most Influ­en­tial Aca­d­e­m­ic Books of All Time: No Spoil­ers

29 Lists of Rec­om­mend­ed Books Cre­at­ed by Well-Known Authors, Artists & Thinkers: Jorge Luis Borges, Pat­ti Smith, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, David Bowie & More

74 Essen­tial Books for Your Per­son­al Library: A List Curat­ed by Female Cre­atives

Umber­to Eco Explains Why We Make Lists


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