Good Reads Slightly Related to Anthropology


Books mentioned here may be science fiction, regular fiction, non-fiction, or anything in between.All comments are by me, unless otherwise mentioned, and therefore untrustworthy.If you have any good ones, drop by and weíll add them to the list.This list is updated whenever I feel like it.Five stars is best, one is worst, as if Iíd have a one-star book on this list.


Science Fiction/Fantasy


Barry Hughart

The Bridge of Birds

No doubt about it, the best fictional reconstruction of ancient China ever done.He fictionalizes the historical sequence to fit his fantasy/detective format, but all texts quoted in the book are real and original (and even good translations).If you read one book on this list, this is it.



Lois McMaster Bujold

Just about anything, starting perhaps with either The Curse of Chalion, Barrayar, or The Vor Game

In my extremely biased opinion, the best science fiction writer of the 20th century, and that includes Heinlein.If Jane Austen had written action-packed science fiction, youíd get something pretty similar.This isnít archaeology, but the character observation is anthropology if Iíve ever seen it.



David Brin

Startide Rising and The Uplift War

A fascinating look at chimp and dolphin language capabilities, as well as a really interesting view of how sentient, linguistic chimps, dolphins, and humans might live together in the future.Brin seems to overreach himself in later books, but these two are hard to beat.Closely related to ANT 210!



Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book

OK, itís not really archaeology, but this time-travel novel of the Middle Ages is worth mentioning anyway.What would happen to archaeology with time travel, anyway?



Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrehnheit 45, Something Wicked This Way Comes

These have varying degrees of anthropologicalness (anthropologicality?) but all have to do with human fears and actions in strange and mysterious environments, and what could be more anthropological than that?I strongly recommend at least one of these.Illustrated Man and Martian Chronicles are both volumes of short stories, and can be read in installments.



Frank Herbert


Dune is one of the great tales of human adaptation to a harsh environment.It is a remarkable achievement, which is even more impressive when one takes into account the almost uniformly mediocre nature of all of the sequels.(Note:Lots of people disagree with me about the sequels).Read Dune for a really unrepeatable experience.You can then come to your own decision about all of the other books in the series.



John Brunner

The Crucible of Time

Another epic tale of a species adapting and overcoming its environment--in this case, the species isn't physically human.  It's hard to go wrong with Brunner, who has produced two great books (this and Stand on Zanzibar) and a large number of merely very good ones.  Because almost all of his stuff is out of print, reading Brunner is guaranteed to keep you busy in used bookstores for at least 10 years. 



Orson Scott Card

Speaker for the Dead

The second book in a seriesóthe first, Ender's Game, is wonderful, but isnít anthropological in any sense.This one, however, has to do with ethnography transplanted onto alien planets, practiced on alien species.All the usual ethnographic ethical problems raise their heads, and you get the continued story of Ender Wiggin, who is trying to expiate his guilt for the last alien species he destroyed by saving another species, or two, or three.



Terry Pratchett

Nearly everything, with special nods to Guards!Guards!, Carpe Jugulam, Sourcery, The Night Watch and Small Gods.

When I say nearly everything, I mean upwards of 50 books, none of which is a bomb with the possible exception of Good Omens (writing a book with Neil Gaiman was the equivalent of John Cleese and Kenneth Branaugh getting together for charades, and then turning it into a movie.  Two great tastes do not always taste great together.)  Pratchett appears to produce silly fantasy, but what he actually writes is clearsighted social satire with a well-hidden, bitter edge; the closest equivalent is Mark Twain. There is no living writer that so consistently produces hysterically funny, high-quality work as Pratchett. 



Kage Baker

The Anvil of the Gods and the Garden of Iden, and most of The Company novels

Baker is a remarkably interesting author; the Company novels are time travel novels that cast a very interesting view on archaeology and anthropology, with a particularly fascinating view of the Neanderthals.  Basically, it takes a similar view of time travel to Willis, with a very different (and darker) view of the future that produces this time travel.  The Anvil of the Gods is more fantasy, with a world containing at least two cultures/races, one of which lives primarily in forests and in harmony with nature, and with a Jesus figure (female) who has married the devil figure.  The other culture is industrial and more or less irreligious; the book is structured around how some individuals in these cultures deal with each other and themselves.  In other words, pure anthropology!



Joel Rosenberg


Not at all archaeological, really, except that this fantasy/mystery gives the best illustration of the Egyptian concept of maíat or balance, that Iíve ever read.A pity they never actually mention this in the book.Really good.



Robert Sawyer

The Neanderthal Parallax, a trilogy containing Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids

A fascinating parallel universe series.  One of the universes is our modern-day one.  When a wormhole opens into a contemporaneous parallel universe in which Neanderthals survived and developed to be the dominant species on earth, the two sides of the wormhole have to learn to deal with (first) the unexpected appearance/disappearance of a Neanderthal, and the ways the two cultures differ.  Naturally, a Sapiens and a Neanderthal fall in love.  Gotta have a love interest.



Jack Vance

The Languages of Pao

This is a science fiction illustration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistics, which argues that different languages produce different ways of thought.Not great literature, but entertaining.



Gregory Benford


Another science-fiction book, this time about an odd intersection between archaeology and astrophysics.If you like hard science fiction, worth reading.



Neil Gaiman

American Gods

An interesting book about the intersection of various belief systems in the New World--I suppose if I  was fixated on anthropology, I could argue that it's about colonialism and its effect on moral systems, but that's probably taking it much too far.  Basically, it's a good read in the "dark atmosphere with very depressed hero who keeps getting beat up" school of scifi/fantasy.




Elizabeth Peters

The Crocodile and the Sandbank

Another Egyptological mystery/romance, this one set in the Victorian period.The heroine is strongly modeled on Gertrude Bell, while the hero essentially steals all of Flinders Petrieís methodological breakthroughs.The first of a very long series, of which this is the best.



Agatha Christie

Death Comes as the End

Agatha Christie was married to the respected Egyptologist Max Mallowan.This is a mystery novel set in ancient Egypt.Her Egyptology is superb; the writing is, well, Christie-esque.



Laurie King

A Letter of Mary and O Jerusalem!

Not the best books in the Mary Russell Holmes series, but these two are the most archaeological.King commits a near miracle by producing a well-written, original Sherlock Holmes book that stays within the canon.She does this by writing when Holmes is older, mellower, and has acquired a brilliant young apprentice, who happens to be a woman.For the best books in this series, read The Beekeeperís Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women.Then read these, for their depiction of yet another Gertrude Bell-modelled heroine.If only Bell had been this popular in her own lifetime!



Jamie Harrison

The Edge of the Crazies, A Strange Prairie Occurence, Going Local and Blue Deer Thaw

An interesting series of detective novels about a former archaeologist specializing in Eastern Europe who becomes the sheriff of a small town in Montana.  He spends most of his time chronically depressed, probably because he should be off digging up Iron Age mounds in the middle of nowhere instead of detecting murderers in the middle of nowhere.  Warning:  Harrison does not always follow Carr's 10 Rules for a Fair Detective Story.



Janet Wallach

Desert Queen : The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell : Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia

Since Bell in fictional form appears in so many of the archaeological novels, it seems only fair to put in a biography.Bell was a remarkable woman; she is the model for so many early adventurous female archaeologists because there simply werenít many. Of all of them, Bell acquired the most influence in both her birth-culture (England) and her adopted one (Arabia and Iraq).This isnít my favorite biography of all time--the author seems somewhat overwhelmed by her subjectóbut itís pretty much whatís out there.Also, she wasnít that much of an ally of Lawrence.He thought she was a stupid, interfering female, and she thought he was a callow young man who might grow out of his problems.They were both wrong.She wasnít stupid, and he didnít grow out of his problems.



Sidney Kirkpatrick

Lords of Sipan : A True Story of Pre-Inca Tombs, Archaeology, and Crime

Several people in ANT 207 have asked for more information about the recovery of artifacts from the tombs of the Lords of Sipan, with ancillary shoot-outs, theft, and general mayhem.This is the best introductory source on this.



Richard Wrangham

Demonic Males

This is an anthropological discussion of the evolutionary development of male violence among great apes.Very, very interesting.



Marjorie Shostak


Possibly the most popular ethnography of all time.This book shifts back and forth between the first-person voice of Nisa, a !Kung san woman, and her ethnographer, Marjorie Shostak.Covers the difference between emic and etic perspective beautifully, and is so exciting and well-written that itís nearly impossible to put down.



Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel

An excellent synthesis of how Europe and the Old World successfully colonized the New World, Africa, and Asia.It draws upon environment, archaeology, and a variety of other sources to put together the story of why the Aztecs or Africans didnít colonize Europe.



Robert Hall

An Archaeology of the Soul

If you were looking for a readable postprocessualist interpretation of North American archaeology, this is the best. It reads well, but one canít help wondering how anyone is ever going to prove any of it.†† Thatís probably not the point, though.



Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas

This is a stretch, but I like Woolf enough that her mention of Gertrude Bell gets this book counted as anthropology.It is (mostly) outmoded now, but is the best inside look at what it felt like to be an intellectual woman in the 1930s that Iíve yet found.Like everything by Woolf, remarkably well written.



V.S. Ramachandran

Phantoms of the Brain

Ramachandran is one of those great geniuses who come out of India, reminding us of what the world might be like if that country had less poverty and a better educational system.  This book describes many of his researches in how the brain works, and how the brain and body interact.  Ramachandran has explained more about this relationship than any five other researchers;  this book is a must for anyone interested in the mind!



Michael Pollan

The Botany of Desire

A really interesting plant's-eye view of domestication.  This book describes the complicated relationship between people and plants by taking four case studies: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato.  Excellent!



Louis Menand

The Metaphysical Club

 More history than anthropology, this book outlines the rise of the philosophy of Pragmatism and its intellectual roots by exploring the histories and intellectual lives of the men who primarily developed it; all members of a short-lived Boston discussion group called the Metaphysical Club.  Containing Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, and various other luminaries, this club appears to have had a good deal more influence than it deserved, considering that there is very little written record of its existence, let alone what they talked about.  It makes a good framework for a fascinating book, though.



Agatha Christie Mallowan

Come, Tell Me How You Live

A memoir of Christie's years on archaeological sites in Syria/Jordan, beginning with the survey and winding through the excavation of two tells (including Tell Brak, a very important site).  It gives an entertaining and still accurate view of life with an archaeologist and in the Middle East before WWII.



Fred Anderson

The Crucible of War

A very long (862 pages!) but interesting, accurate, and well-written study of the interactions between England, France, Native American groups, and colonists that led to both the Seven Years War and American Independence.  His discussions of Iroquois diplomacy and Native American interactions are remarkable for their accuracy and understanding.  We mentioned this in the Seminar on Southeastern Archaeology.



Barbara Tuchman

A Distant Mirror

All of Tuchman's histories are readable, and most are entertaining, but this is probably her most thematically unified work.  It discusses the Fourteenth century in Europe, which included the birth of patriotism, the rise of the nation-state, and some really interesting marital problems among the royal families of England and France.  Applicable to the discussions of ethnicity and cultural identity in ANT 105. 



Elizabeth Anne Fenn

Pox Americana

A study of the smallpox epidemic of 1775-1777.  Probably the best study that I've found yet on why smallpox spread so much more quickly among native Americans than European colonists, and more quickly among European colonists than native Europeans.  Very interesting, particularly if you're into epidemic diseases (which I am).  Some gross pictures included.



Arthur Herman

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It

A heroic attempt at arguing that the Scots invented nearly everything worthwhile in the traditional Enlightenment cultures of Britain and the United States.  He makes some good points, but has clearly overdosed on the haggis--he tends to minimize all advances made by any other ethnic groups, and anyone with one Scottish great-grandparent is coopted as an honorary Scot.  There is also a serious disconnect in his view of Scottish culture that is not addressed--how could the same culture simultaneously invent the liberal education tradition, most modern philosophy AND lynching, the redneck, and colonial corruption?  Why was Scottish culture in Scotland enlightened, and Scottish culture in the U.S., well, not?  His discussion of the Scottish philosophers is fascinating, however, and he explains the concept of self-evident truths very clearly.