B: We are here today with Dr Henrike Donner, an urban anthropologist with research interests in gender and kinship, class and urban politics. She has conducted fieldwork in Kolkata, India from the mid-90s onwards and who has kindly agreed to be interviewed about her bookshelves and her interactions with books in general. What was the first anthropological book you read and how did you get into reading it?
HD: I’ve been thinking about that and I think what I’m expected to say is that I loved reading Levi-Strauss in my spare time, but that would be a blatant lie, the only version of Structures of Kinship that I have is one that I picked up for two Marks at that time when I was an undergraduate student and it was on a big pile of stuff that they were throwing out. I think, if you think back into these things at all the first book that engaged me with questions that are vaguely anthropological was an autobiography of an archaeologist actually, myth has it, went and ‘discovered’ Troya. And I wanted to become an anthropologist later, first, I wanted to be an archaeologist because I read that book and I loved that book, it was really interesting. The second problem that comes up when you ask me that question is that I’ve probably read so many books that I love that it’s very difficult to pick just one, the first book that was anthropological that I had was a book on the history of tobacco, it was part of the introduction to anthropology course in Munich. It was the most boring ethnography that I have ever encountered and I thought if this is anthropology I don’t know how I will survive this.
B: So you didn’t read any anthropological books before you started studying it?
B: How did you come to pick anthropology to study?
HD: I wanted to go to India, that’s the very straightforward answer. I wanted to go to India and that was the place to start. You could have alternatively engaged in a kind of phenomenological way and go down that route and do Indology but I wasn’t interested in ancient ‘India’ and Sanskrit,I was interested in contemporary India.
B: You keep your books at home, not in your office, is there a reason for that? Do you use your books mainly at home?
HD: Yes, it’s an interesting question because I suppose your office becomes more cosy when you have more of your books there but first of all, I have changed jobs quite a number of times and there are practical reasons for it. Secondly, I think I have always found it difficult to write articles in my office, I do all my writing at home.
B: How do you organise your books at home, is there a method?
HD: Oh God, yes there’s a method but it’s slightly idiosyncratic, it’s alphabetical but it’s just vaguely alphabetical and there are exceptions to those alphabetical rules. I suppose all my colleagues do that as well.
B: What are the exceptions?
HD: The exceptions are books that I know the title of but can never remember the author or vice versa.
B: Where do you get your books from?
HD: I’m a book nerd, I will spend hours in bookshops, any bookshop really, it’s very difficult if you travel to countries or regions in India where you’re not conversant with the vernacular so I really detest going to Hindi speaking areas because I cannot buy any books. I get books from bookshops obviously, I order books online, I buy books at conferences, I love to buy books at second hand sales, I have been known to take books from holiday homes – always a source of very unexpected literature. And I read books that I get from the library.
B: Did you bring any of your books to your field site when you first went?
HD: There’s a mythology around that, that there was this eye-opening encounter with one kind of literature that happened in the field. I purposely did not bring a single book to my field site when I did my PhD. But I bought an awful lot of books – I work in Calcutta, literature in English is easily available so I bought all sorts of very interesting books, many from footpath hawkers.
B: Do you keep your own books on your bookshelf, are they included and are they alphabetised?
HD: They are somewhere there, only here in the office.
B: So you don’t take them home?
HD: No, what would I do with them there?
B: Good point! Do you have a favourite book shop?
B: In Hackney, we are very lucky, we have a great independent bookshop, which – even better – does not store a single anthropology book, so I am forced to engage with other types of literature., I’m quite an idiosyncratic reader I guess, I read books on urban development, I read novels, I read poetry, it’s really quite broad and whenever I go there I come out with something that I did not expect to buy. Calcutta has wonderful bookshops too, not least in the famous area around College Street, which is one road only dedicated to books.
B: Would you say that your bookshelf has mainly anthropology books or if not how is your bookshelf made up?
HD: They are separate, the anthropology is in my study and that is alphabetically ordered, apart from that we have a huge amount of other books which are in English and German and they are completely not in arranged in an ordered fashion. It’s just random and there are three people in the house, so we kind of mix books and you can never find anything.
B: Do you write in your books or do you turn any of the pages over or how do you engage with your books?
HD: Again, that’s slightly contested, so with my own books, with my anthropology books, I have control over them but with the novels and all the other books, which I may also consider to be partly anthropology, some of them, other members of the household are known to take the covers off which I really don’t like, they write in them, they turn the pages in the wrong way and things like that happen. In my anthropology books, I have a tendency to write notes in them, but not with the novels.
B: On the photos of your bookshelf there are two masks in one of them can you explain what they are and how they came to be on your bookshelf?
HD: They are masks that stem Sikkim in Northern India. They are some form of Buddhist demons and they are there to protect the study from evil spirits and teenage interference….
B: Do you have any non-book items around your bookshelf?
HD: There is Hindu mala – a kind of rosary that I have inherited, there are a couple of photographs, there is a massive print bywith a Fanon quote, behind some of the anthropology books there used to be a PSP which was confiscated, and which we never found again, there are also seed packets which I keep in my bookshelf.
B: Do you think that you are reflected in your own bookshelf?
Yes definitely because a lot of that is ethnography and a lot of that is on South Asia. Naturally a lot of the books are also on gender and then there is a percentage that is on global middle classes.
B: Do you have a book which you would consider the most underrated book?
HD: There’s not just one, there are whole literatures which are underrated. I would argue that anthropologists very often underrate novels as sources of good ethnography, I think there are wonderful ethnographies, especially feminist ethnographies, which are underrated but tell us a lot about kinship, economics, politics through discussions of domestic spaces and intimate microcosms that are underrated.
There are definitely certain ethnographies that don’t get the credit they deserve. There are two in particular that immediately come to mind, one is by Rhoda Halperin, she was an American scholar and she has written a wonderful ethnography about the American South on livelihoods, kinship and the complexity of relationships that people have across particular rural spaces. She links the need to keep your family going, gendered roles and particular types of work and it is just a wonderful monograph. And the other one I think is underrated and I have recommended to so many people is by a person called Laura Ring and is about the everyday life in a Karachi apartment building, women’s roles as social interlocutors in the home in a situation which is extremely segregated, where women from different ethnic communities, which are opposed to each other, interact and do what she calls I think making peace, being peacemakers, being mediators, so that’s a wonderful ethnography.
B: Which book do you think influenced you the most?
HD: It’s not one book, it’s a whole series of books really, I couldn’t pick one, I cannot even pick favourite authors, let alone one specific book. I do have to say that I absolutely love to read ethnography, I am an ethnography junkie.
B: Do you have a most precious book?
HD: No I don’t think so, all of them are precious that’s the problem!
B: How much of your bookshelf do you think is online?
HD: I really don’t like to read online and I have to do that as a lecturer but I really don’t do this voluntarily at all. I also print articles out if I can.
B: Do you lend your books out a lot?
HD: Yes I do and there’s one book specifically that I haven’t gotten back and I’ve never forgotten about it, it is the first edition of Timberg’s 1970’s monograph of the Marwari business community in Calcutta. It disappeared and I’ve asked all the colleagues who would have an interest in it, I know that there are five of them and one of them must have it…
Interview by Bethany Loft