Desert Island Books with Nigel Pleasants

In a new feature, the SPA Undergrad News blog asks academics from the department to share the books they couldn’t survive without on a desert island. First up is Nigel Pleasants:

I’m Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Sociology, having joined the department of sociology (as it was then) in 1997, straight from finishing my PhD. I was centrally involved in the re-institution of Philosophy as a discipline to the University in my early years here. There had previously been a Philosophy department at Exeter, but that was closed in the 1980s. My main areas of research and teaching are: Social and Moral philosophy; Philosophy of the social sciences; Philosophical and social scientific issues relating to the Holocaust and the history of slavery and its abolition; Ethics of Animal exploitation; and the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

I began my A level education late, in my mid 20s, after having worked at a turkey meat-processing factory for 7 years. I had left school at 16 with just a few CSEs. After doing well at A level I went on to Bristol to do a degree in Philosophy and Sociology, and from there went to Cambridge to do a Masters and then PhD.

Here are my five books:

1. George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra flying

This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read, and one of the very few (actually probably the only one) that I’ve read more than once. Ok, perhaps this reveals something about my sense of humour. I last read it, if I remember correctly, on the train coming to my interview for the Exeter job. It made me laugh out loud (I realise there’s a txt acronym for this, but don’t want to get it tragically wrong à la David Cameron). I first read it in my very early A level days. I don’t want to get too pretentious (but probably will), but in my view this is Orwell’s best novel by a mile. The other two famous books (Animal Farm and 1984) are not actually in my opinion novels at all – if you want to know the reason for this heretical view you’ll have to read TS Elliot’s essay on ‘the objective correlative’. In the past I have kept an Aspidistrain my living quarters – but unlike in the novel, mine die.

2. Shakespeare – Hamlet

I discovered Shakespeare doing A level literature. It taught me how to read a text via the language in which it is written. This textual training became the formation of my ability to read and think philosophically. It’s hard to put one’s finger on what’s so great about Hamlet, so I’d have to reach for the clichés about the astonishing depths to which Shakespeare is able to delve in reflecting on the human condition, the sheer beauty of the language, and the range of emotions displayed. It’s also a pretty gripping story.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein – On Certainty

My one strictly ‘academic’ book. I discovered Wittgenstein via this lesser known text of his in a year 2 course on epistemology at Bristol. The course began with Descartes, proceeded through G E Moore and some others to Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and then was supposed to advance onto contemporary epistemology. But I couldn’t get beyond Wittgenstein. On Certainty is replete with profound observations on the nature of belief, knowledge and certainty, intermingled with a kind of everyday anthropology of ordinary life. It’s also actually very funny too in many places (e.g. ‘this fellow isn’t insane, he’s just doing philosophy’). The extraordinary aphoristic style of Wittgenstein would be well suited to a desert Island; I’d also like to take the more famous (and more beguilingly tricky) Philosophical Investigations, but mustn’t be greedy.

4. David Lodge – Small world

Yes, another novel I’m afraid. I love all of Lodge’s ‘campus novels’ – they are extremely funny and clever. Much of the material is of a rather ‘adult’ nature. Lodge’s comic depiction of the academic’s life sustained me in my early years in academia. But don’t worry, academic life is not now (nor has it been in my time in it) anything like as salacious as it is in a Lodge novel, which took their inspiration from the 1970s and 80s British University (ask your parents about this). Not only was it a small world then, but a very different one. Another cliché – Lodge’s novels score high on the ‘feel good factor’, which would be important on the Island.

5. The Oxford English dictionary

Sorry to sound boring! As an A level student I was confronted by a lot of writing I simply couldn’t understand, so made the decision to look up every word whose meaning I didn’t know. This was laborious, but paid off in the end – I now understand the meaning of most words I encounter in academic texts, apart from the jargon, and don’t bother too much about that. In my student days it was The Collins English dictionary, but for the Island I’d like the magisterial OED. Surely I would never come to the day when I’d think “I’ve read that now” – by the time one gets to the end (if one were to read from beginning to end) one would have forgotten the beginning.

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