Favourite Readings 2021 – Introduction

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The end of year is approaching, and as has become customary on this blog, we are marking it with a series of posts on some ‘Favourite Readings’ of the year: recommendations by friends of EJIL that celebrate books, the process of reading, and the influence reading has on us all.

These posts are no book reviews. They recommend, rather than review. However, like book reviews, they presuppose that we don’t just skim read books, but engage in what Fleur Johns, in a thoughtful reflection on book reviewing, has referred to ‘the habit of close cover-to-cover reading’. Cover-to-cover reading in turn assumes, or is at least greatly aided by, the possibility of holding a printed book in one‘s hand, of physically turning pages, of sensing a book. At the risk of giving away our age, this is how we grew up with (print) books. And this is how we prefer our books, including the ones that we review or recommend.

At least in the UK, the pandemic seems to have been a boost for the print books. ‘Book sales have soared since the pandemic’, a recent piece in The Conversation tells us, noting that ‘over 200 million print books were sold in [2020] – the highest number since 2012′. We do not have any figures for academic publishing. But based on our experience with EJIL book reviewing, we can say that in academic book reviewing, the print book has come under further pressure. The pandemic‘s impacts on supply chains, postal services, manufacturing, and staffing at publishing houses contribute to the seemingly unstoppable rise of the e-book. Many publishers are now implementing an e-book onlyor offering an e-book firstpolicy. Arranging for a physical copy of a book to be sent to reviewers has become a difficult and lengthy process, at times taking months and a significant number of e-mail exchanges with publishing houses.

While there are perhaps carbon footprint benefits to printing and shipping fewer print books – conversely creating more of a carbon footprint keeping laptops and tablets powered up, and generating more email traffic – and perhaps making books more convenient and portable, this trend is problematic for those engaged in ‘the habit of close, cover-to-cover reading’. Many cover-to-cover readers find they need physical copies to concentrate or are affected by the blue light of screens in front of which we are all spending too much time anyway. And while it might seem sheer indulgence in this day and age to sit peacefully with a book without emails pinging or screens flashing, we are told by reviewers that this is what they want (and this is what they do), at least for the focused reading required for reviewing. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of our reviewers express a strong preference for physical copies of the books they have accepted to review. We hope that academic publishers reading this post will take note: we‘d love to have a chat about the importance EJIL‘s reviewers (and EJIL’s review team) attach to printed books, the ones that can be read, but also touched, heard and smelled.

While we have not asked our contributors to this year’s ‘Favourite Readings’ symposium about their reading preferences, it rather seems to us that much of the enthusiam in the seven contributions that follow distills the experience of valued time spent with books in close, cover-to-cover reading. As in previous ‘Favourite Readings’ symposia, we have sought to curb neither their enthusiasm, nor the diversity of our contributors‘ recommendations. And so we are set for a week of diverse expressions of readers’ joy: some posts highlighting 10 titles, others concentrating on 2 — some focused on legal writing, some decidedly less so — some jubilant in their praise, others more restrained. We begin, tomorrow, with Joseph Weiler’s now-traditional ‘10 good reads’ (this year complemented by two ‘honourable mentions’), followed by the ‘Favourite Readings’ of Anne van Aaken, Jan Klabbers, Michal Saliternik, Justus Vasel, Gail Lythgoe and Jean d’Aspremont — who introduce us, amongst many others, to a Dutch politician possessing practical wisdom, to an Arab Israeli emigrant with multiple identities, a middle-aged professor suddenly beginning to discover the 1960s youth culture, and Sigmund Freud’s tobacconist. Prepare for a literary journey across continents and genres.

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