Favourite Reading 2020 – Reading as a Shared Space and a Practice of Solidarity

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Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Chatto & Windus, 2019)

Madeline Miller, Circe (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019)

Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin, 2019)

Wayétu Moore, She Would Be King (One, 2020)

Debjani Bhattacharyya, ‘Almanac of A Tide Country’ SSRC (November 10, 2020)

Kangle Zhang, Not Equal: Towards an International Law of Finance

Peter Geoghegan, Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics (Apollo 2020)

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 200. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Gail Lythgoe. You can read all the posts in this series here


The books claiming their position as my favourites of 2020 make for ideal holiday reading: some address many of the important debates of recent years while others can transport you to a more magical space of resistance and critique. Noticeably, those books I have enjoyed most this year are ones which have allowed me to take a mental break from my research. I have to say, I felt elated after my PhD was submitted to read something for fun again.

However, what I have truly taken joy in is reading in a more connected way. Those connections come in a variety of forms, including in the practice of recommendations or spending time together reading. In a world of lockdowns and restrictions, I have taken note of the social side of reading, an activity which I had previously appreciated as a mostly individual endeavour. Reading is still individual on many levels: everyone reads differently, we have our own preferences for note taking or reflecting on what was read, and we are each engaged in individual readings and interpretations. But we can find connections in sharing our tips, techniques, and time, and I have embraced these in this of all years.

2020 comes full circle

I began this year reading Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (by Caroline Criado Perez) while suffering from a ghastly flu at the time. The book roundly deserves the praise that it received and should have been on the reading list of every Head of School, University Principal, and Head of State during 2020 (at least until Covid-19 meant they each had to become au fait with all manner of issues including virus transmission, social distancing, supporting jobs, and student and staff physical and mental health). What struck me most was how much I had taken for granted as an inconvenience was really by design for someone other than me – whether that is the toilets in a theatre and the huge queue women face during intervals, the way snow is cleared in cities that prioritises the routes men are more likely to use than women with pushchairs, expenses (why aren’t child care expenses available to attend an international conference?), or tax codes and loan agreements which assume the lifestyle, spending habits, and earning patterns of  typical men. The list really does go on.

Criado Perez divides the findings of data bias in Invisible Women into parts dedicated to ‘daily life’, the ‘workplace’, ‘design’ (covering everything from designing and testing seatbelts on male bodies, to wrist watches unable to accurately record the steps of women pushing prams), health care, and ‘public life’. The sense that data bias pervades every aspect of our lives comes across brilliantly in the extensiveness of the findings, how many aspects of our lives these extend into, and of how obvious these data biases are once pointed out.

The gendered nature of this pandemic means this book is more important to read at the end of 2020 than when I read it at the start. The data bias of a world designed for men has been prescient this year: viruses have different effects on male and female bodies; drugs have different reactions in male and female bodies; and home schooling often has a gendered impact on home life. No one knew for a long time how pregnant women would be affected (and much is still unknown) due to a lack of research generally into women’s bodies. Further, the way the pandemic has restricted academic mobility across the board – a process that was always far harder for women – means many are now wondering just how much of that aspect of their job is essential and, of course, there was the noticeable downturn in women’s research publication output during the pandemic – an issue that appears to have been much remarked but little acted upon outwith a few journals.

Shared Space

This year I have re-discovered the joy of books recommended and books read together. I have given away my copy of Circe, by Madeline Miller so many times in the last year, I no longer know who has it and so failed to have it to hand when my sister and then my mum wanted to borrow it. I still highly recommend this book, although technically it should have been at the top of my 2019 reading recommendations. It is an exquisitely written account of Circe, the daughter of Helios, from Greek mythology. Circe is a thoroughly magical read of a complex woman who usually plays a bit part in the Odyssey. The story is breath-taking, and is still the best I have read in the last few years.

Two books and one essay deserve special mention here as my favourites of 2020. The first is Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which I read alongside with my mum. It is brilliantly funny and written in unbelievably poetic and original prose. I read this book contemporaneously with the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, which exposed how thoroughly the perspectives of black women are missing. Girl, Woman, Other is more than just an account of the experiences of black women in Britain though. Evaristo offers a fresh take and writes with such humour and ingenuity that she makes you fall in love. I stopped and laughed upon reading jaded schoolteacher Shirley’s intuition that ‘life’s so much simpler for men, simply because women are so much more complicated than them’ (at 423). Upon sharing this in my Instagram stories, I immediately struck up an exchange about whether women actually are more complicated, or whether they just seem more complicated because the world, the way we think, what we understand about psychology, emotions, and consciousness, are all understood through a male perspective.

Yet even when we develop female perspectives, it is usually a white, cis, straight, middle class one. (Hands up: this is me.) The message that stuck with me most from Girl, Woman, Other is tenacious, lesbian, playwright Amma’s advice to ‘celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully entitled human beings’ (at 438). This seems to have perfectly captured my mood this year: black women and trans-women (and all women really) deserve to take up just as much space, even if it makes someone feel uncomfortable. Too many have been uncomfortable for far too long.

These conversations are only beginning. As such there is much left unresolved in Girl, Woman, Other including the fundamental question of what it is to be female, as well as issues of domestic violence between women, transgender acceptance, and mental health. Even the abovementioned celebration of reconfiguring feminism ends with what is clearly the author’s voice asking, ‘how can we argue with that?’ Genius. Evaristo reflects a flawed society flawlessly. A summer of protest settles nothing. Societies do not change overnight nor are they homogenous. There are reports of splintering inside the BLM movement, and why not? Important gender, class, LGBTQI, disability, and language issues intersect. Girl, Women, Other captures this beautifully, performing as a mirror to our society.

The second suggestion came in the form of She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore, recommended by the women of the ATLAS (Scotland) Network. She Would Be King is not exactly a story about the creation of states, but it contains an interesting exploration of the lives and experiences of those who participate in state-building for the international lawyers reading it. There is much more to be taken away from this book though. The story follows a trio – one immortal (which I read as a metaphor for an enduring black identity), one invisible (who does not matter and uses it to his advantage), and one indestructible (who was born to a family of brokenness). Described as belonging to the genre of magical realism, it is a deeply human book, written about mortal pain and suffering, which explores the relationship between freed, repatriated slaves and the indigenous who were never sold into the slavery. I cannot explain how deeply moving I found She Would Be King; my only recommendation is to read it and be moved by the whispers and spirit of the chorus yourself.

Given many of us have experienced shorter attention spans this year, one of the best short pieces I have read this year is ‘Almanac of A Tide Country’ by Debjani Bhattacharyya. Surabhi Ranganathan shared this essay into my timeline. It is a piece I find myself revisiting. Resonating with my own research problematising the cartographical imagination of international law, Bhattacharyya asks ‘Can we decolonize our map-minded approach to spaces in our research and pedagogy? Can we turn to a mode of viewing and a reading practice of space that can gather together a multitude of inhabited worlds: rational, natural, and spiritual?’ I highly recommend a read and then a walk next to some water, if possible, to reflect.

Reading and Practising Solidarity

I have also taken great joy in finding time and space to read with others (even if virtually). I responded to a call about forming a group committed to reading together 1-2 hours a week from Başak Etkin on Twitter. From those hours, I have not only read more, but formed wonderful friendships.

This is usually my time for more ‘law orientated reading’ and one of the best books I have read is a copy of Kangle Zhang’s PhD thesisNot Equal: Towards an International Law of Finance’. I very much hope this is published soon as it deserves to be widely read. Zhang brilliantly accounts for the ‘nonchalance’ of international finance towards equality in his thesis. His overarching aim is to articulate an International Law of Finance, but he achieves more than that in this monograph. After making the case as to why states focused on trade rather than finance in the post-WWII years, Zhang assesses the balance of power between economically powerful and less powerful states, and the way this distribution of power is reflected in the regulatory agenda and mechanisms established from the 1970s onwards. Zhang successfully problematises and dismantles the assumptions of liberal economic theories to show how deeply unequal and filled with false promise they are. Not Equal adds much to the current conversation about law and money in a way that is grounded in legal analysis and a rich understanding of the law. I hope there will be many opportunities to discuss the eventual monograph in various settings in 2021.

Last but not least, one of the standout books – for all the wrong reasons perhaps – I read is Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan. The right reasons for reading Democracy for Sale include the insane amount of research that Geoghegan has put in and the significance of his discoveries. Unfortunately, what emerges from this painstaking investigation is a disturbing story about how Brexit won in 2016, the destructive agendas, personalities, and networks of those involved, and the, yes, dark money that is continuing to dirty UK politics. It reads almost like a thriller and is an appropriate book to pick up now when it finally looks like there will be a Brexit trade deal and the brash approach this UK Government has adopted toward negotiations. Yet, these circumstances become less of a shock upon reading the book: even no deal seems to have been high on the agenda of many of these ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’ AKA the ‘macho drama queens of Brexit’ – or as I concluded upon reading, full on psychopaths – for a very long time. Of interest to lawyers, underlying Democracy for Sale is a story of how law operates to enable dark money and corrupt politics, including: the fault lines in electoral law (described as ‘fiendishly complex’ with ‘bits hanging off it everywhere’ (at 25)), data protection law, tax law, constitutional arrangements creating an ‘obscure lacuna’ (at 82) in Northern Ireland, and the law underpinning ‘unincorporated associations’. It is because the UK is not alone in this ‘populism’ trend, Geoghegan’s work deserves to be read widely to understand the dangers present in many democracies.

All that remains for me to do is to wish you all a very happy and restful holiday season. May 2021 bring us all good health and more opportunities to create spaces of solidarity through reading and engaging with ideas together.

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