ALEX: Have you changed your bookshelf at all for this interview?
GAVIN: I did tidy it up last week after we talked. So recently yes. But not a proper re-ordering, just rearranging the objects and getting rid of the mouldy coffee cup that was there.
ALEX: A valid thing to do.
GAVIN: (Laughing) I removed the mould more than anything else.
ALEX: Earlier you’d mentioned that you change your bookshelf in relation to the projects you’re doing. How does your bookshelf reflect this?
GAVIN: So, those ones [in the centre] are the ones I’ve been looking at most recently for a research proposal that I’ve been doing on vigilantes, which is going to be using graphic novels, comic book and animated outputs. Two of those books up there are by the collaborator – Shaun Michael Wilson – and then the book above that is on graphic justice, which is all about how comic books can be made integral to research on justice.
My bookshelf goes through phases of being quite well sorted into categories of use. Different clusters are used for teaching on different courses and for different research proposals, and at other times of year it descends into chaos. At the moment its erring towards chaos, with some scatterings of sorting, but the comics are actually spread out across everywhere. But the stuff I’m specifically using for this research proposal has found its way to the top of the bookshelf.
ALEX: So the core stuff is arranged towards the centre?
GAVIN: Yes, to where I can reach it physically.
ALEX: You’d mentioned that a personal grievance of yours is lending books out and not getting them back. What of your bookshelf is is missing?
Missing books. So… hmm… (laughing)
ALEX: Do you record your missing books, that’s the key question?
GAVIN: I know! I don’t… No, I used to take notes, then I realised I was so bad at taking notes that they served little purpose. I tend just to grab books and give them to people. At the moment Vigilant Citizens by Ray Abrahams is infuriatingly missing. I’ve clearly lent it to a student this time last year, and they didn’t give it back, but I don’t know who has it. And also two graphic novels [Trauma is Really Strange and Pain is Really Strange] are missing. I lent them to a student and they’ve not given them back. They are really niche publications! The Ray Abrahams book costs £60 to get another copy, and a student has it (groans). So yes, I find that infuriating, but books are supposed to be lent. Otherwise I would just commit myself to going fully digital, but actually physically giving somebody a book is a very meaningful thing.
ALEX: I think it has more of an effect on you as a person than receiving a pdf.
GAVIN: It is effective, yes! My friend, Jamie Lawson, and I, back when we were both teaching at Durham, tried to start a Kula ring by giving students copies of books. I gave out a copy of Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, and he gave out one that was more biological anthropologically oriented.
ALEX: How far along did that get?
GAVIN: (Laughing) the students just kept the books! It got as far as one person, and then it stopped. So we gave out two books, is what ended up happening. But I like the idea of handing out books. It’s how knowledge has been conveyed to me effectively, and I like to do it for other people.
ALEX: Knowledge as a form of gift giving?
GAVIN: Yes, totally! As opposed to my other half, who believes that we should never give out any of our books – particularly the ones we co-own! She’s an anthropologist. She thinks I should stop because students always steal my books.
ALEX: What’s your favourite story that comes from any of these books as objects?
GAVIN: My favourite story of a book is the cluster of books up on my top left-hand shelf. They came from I.M. Lewis’ collection. Following her graduation, Ioan Lewis’ granddaughter, who didn’t have the surname Lewis, said “have you ever heard of I.M. Lewis”? And I said “yes” and went on a big long rant about how awesome I.M. Lewis was, and how Ecstatic Religions was one of my favourite books when I was an undergraduate, and how I still have a very well-thumbed copy of it that I got second-hand. It was a book I was very fond of and I went on this rant, then she said, “that was my granddad, and he recently passed away. We’re looking to do something with his books, would you be interested in coming round and having a look?”
And I did. I went round and had a very long conversation with his wife Ann about his life in anthropology, Evans-Pritchard’s role in getting them together in marriage, about anthropology and Quakerism. It was a lovely way to spend a day and I also got to go through his library and collect a bunch of books on things that I love and by authors that I love, and some of them are signed. The Evans-Pritchard one has a photograph inside it that was given to him by Evans-Pritchard, who was his supervisor. I love Evans-Pritchard, he’s one of my favourite writers in all of anthropology. But yes, those books up there have a special place in my heart, and at the same time I also got to supply a sixth form college that was teaching anthropology with a bookshelf of classic anthropology texts. It was just a very nice way of reintegrating somebody else’s library into the world.
Also in there is a book by Brian Morris, the department’s founder, that he had given to Lewis and has a massive thank you to him for all of his help that he had given to him in all of his career. So there’s the intersection between Goldsmiths and Brian Morris and Ioan Lewis. Its all there in the annotations in the books, and its kind of lovely.
ALEX: Yeah it’s great when you find books with things written in them and you feel like you’re a part of something.
GAVIN: Yes, there are books where I appreciate the comments on some of the pages more than the actual stuff on the pages. Particularly when someone has got really frustrated. There was a copy of Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift that had some of the best annotations I have ever come across where particularly difficult sentences are just underlined out of frustration. You can see that the person is trying to get to grips with it and the margin notes is full of expletives and you can just imagine the person sitting in the library having the same experience as you. Or, there’s this copy of [Clifford Geertz’] The Interpretation of Cultures where all of the best passages have got notes next to them and some really good underlining, that predate my ownership of it. And you just think, ‘yeah, well done – thank you!’
ALEX: And which books are you least attached to then; or, perhaps in other words, which would you more readily have stolen?
GAVIN: Hmmm… the ones I hate, I feel quite an attachment to in a weird way. My least favourite books are the ones that make me angry. They tend to be the ones related to controversies, where I’m very much on one side rather than the other, and the book itself then becomes something that is interesting as an object. So I wouldn’t get rid of them. However, there are at least 20 books up there that I have only ever apathetically flicked through and if people came along and took away, I wouldn’t realise they had gone.
ALEX: Okay so we have endearing dislike, and apathy…
GAVIN: Yes, two very different sort of things. Endearing dislike just leads to me wanting to have the book, whereas apathy leads me wondering why I haven’t donated them to charity shops already. You know, the edited volumes that you don’t teach on any more, or on topics where the research has come on a little bit since then. So, meh, I feel some indifference towards them, but I wish them no ill. There will be no book burnings in relation to them or anything.
ALEX: Is your first anthropology book here?
GAVIN: It isn’t my first copy, but this book, The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, is the first book of anthropology that I ever read. It was formative, in as much as it got me to do anthropology, and also in that it forced me to radically reconsider what anthropology was when I came across a brick wall of people unwilling to talk about Carlos Castaneda and I was forced to look into the controversy myself. The fact that I look at controversies and have a book proposal being under consideration about controversies, and I teach on controversies – you can see that much of my entry to anthropology is the process of engaging with this particular thorny issue. So, yeah, I would argue that he is one of the worst anthropologists in the discipline’s history, and also he was my gateway drug for anthropology.
ALEX: Going back to your endearing dislike, I can see the links.
GAVIN: Absolutely, and it should probably be read with this sort of counterpoint of Seeing Castaneda, which is a book about him that deals with him in a much more even-handed way. There’s a book up here by Mary Douglas, with a chapter that makes the argument that there’s a good reason to say that even if what he is saying is completely bollocks, then it is worth taking the bollocks seriously for the implications that it has for the discipline. And I think that she’s right. I think in our haste to condemn him for the worst things that he did, such as fabricating his research and plagiarism; I mean they’re bad, bad, bad things, but I think he suggested to millions of readers – many of whom went on to become anthropologists – a way of doing anthropology that has entered into our methodology. Two of the reviewers for my book proposal think that he shouldn’t be included within the book because he’s not an anthropologist. There’s a desire to excise him, even though he’s been read by millions of people. We need a discussion of the way in which we know his material to be fabricated and the way we understand his material ethically, otherwise he will continue to be taken seriously by people who shouldn’t be taking him seriously.
ALEX: That touches upon the idea of fictional anthropology.
GAVIN: Absolutely and anthropology that sort of verges between fictional and non-fictional is really fascinating. I mean, Michael Taussig’s The Magic of the State is up there, with a fabricated nation state’s relationship to its citizens being thought through. But the difference is that it’s explicit that that is what he’s doing. In that sense there’s something about Castaneda that if we take at face value as lies, then there might still be something interesting in there.
ALEX: What’s the story with the Gremlin?
GAVIN: So… (laughs) every time you move house or have children you have to have a cull of objects at home. I was being made to get rid of my Gremlin, and I couldn’t part with it, so its come into my office so that it isn’t destroyed. The same with the cuíca up there. My partner say’s its too noisy to play in the house and too fragile for children. It was a lovely gift from my anthropology students at Durham where they had listened to me talking about the cuíca being my favourite musical instrument that I never knew what it was until I did know what it was.
ALEX: I can’t say I’ve ever heard cuíca music before.
GAVIN: You have! It’s the (does impression) instrument that you occasionally hear. It sounds like monkey noises. It’s an instrument that sounds like a bad impression of a monkey.
ALEX: I can see why your partner wouldn’t be so keen on having it in the house!
GAVIN: (laughing) yes, but it was a very nice gift and they also gave me a cake with my face on it. They gave me a Gavin’s face cake and a cuíca!
ALEX: A reciprocated gift.
GAVIN: Yes, that is a reciprocated gift in as much as it was the students I set up a reading circle for where I gave my time freely just to talk about readings and that is what they gave me in return.
ALEX: Finally, is there anything else that you’d like to mention in relation to your bookshelf?
GAVIN: Just that if this is going online – and I hope it does, because it is my project and if we don’t get online something has gone very wrong – then I would like to give a shout to those students who have stolen my books to give them back! (Laughing) If you own one of the many books that have gone missing over the number of years that I’ve been teaching, give me my books back and I’ll forgive you!
Interview by Alex Kirby-Reynolds