Books Features

Top of the heap: Richard Keller

This article is part of the following series:


Untitled, 2011. Artist: Miler Lagos.

For this latest “Top of the heap” we got in touch with Richard Keller, of the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he sent us this list of his favorite recent reads:

Richard Keller

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).

This book deserves the multiple prizes it is racking up, and provides a new model of writing for the environmental humanities. The book successfully brings together political, historical, and literary analysis to create a new frame for thinking about global environmental justice.


Miriam Ticktin, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

 I just reviewed this book for H-France but can’t resist plugging it again here. It’s one of the better books I’ve read in the past few years, focusing on the predicament of the guise of humanitarianism that has shaped asylum policies in contemporary France. The book brings crystal clarity to its explanations of extraordinarily complex problems, in a vein similar to recent work by Didier Fassin and Peter Redfield.


Peter Redfield, Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

I’ve been following the development of this book since Peter presented one of his first papers from this research at Rutgers some ten years ago. It’s a characteristically brilliant volume that assembles a number of the papers he’s published in the past few years with additional material, resulting in a marvelous intellectual history of MSF as well as an ethnography of its practices.


Julie Livingston, Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012).

Julie Livingston has established herself as one of the best historian/ethnographers working today. Where her book on debility in Botswana was excellent, this new volume is truly outstanding. Here the ethnographic side of her work shines, bringing a presence to the writing that makes the book utterly gripping from its first sentences.


Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012).

Like Julie Livingston, Gabrielle Hecht has merged the best of historical and ethnographic methods in this lucid, captivating account of uranium production in southern Africa. The book’s mapping of the intersections of labor, migration, health, the body, technology, and global nuclear politics make this volume a tour de force—required reading for Africanists, environmental humanists, and historians of global STM.


Thierry Jonquet, Mon Vieux (Paris: Seuil, 2004).

Because we all have to read fiction too. This wonderful, if troubling, novel poses difficult questions about what we owe our parents and our children (where do we place our limited resources?), the relationship between the individual and the state (where do the protections of the welfare state end?), and whether we can justify murder. Set primarily in Paris during the devastating heat wave of August 2003, the novel places its protagonist—a modestly successful television screenwriter—in the unenviable position of providing plastic surgery for his daughter, disfigured in a horrible motor scooter accident (which the state refuses to subsidize), or paying the hospitalization costs of the elderly, demented father who abandoned him in his youth (which the state demands). The author’s characterization of a band of homeless who live in the protagonist’s neighborhood and their survival strategies provides a fascinating accompaniment to the main story.


Richard Keller is professor in the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is also director of the International Studies Major and the Global Studies research center. He is the author of Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa(University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Enregistrer les morts, identifier les surmortalités: Une comparaison Angleterre, Etats-Unis et France (Presses de l’Ecole des hautes études en santé publique, 2010, with Carine Vassy and Robert Dingwall), and is co-editor of Unconscious Dominions: Psychoanalysis, Colonial Trauma, and Global Sovereignties (Duke University Press, 2011, with Warwick Anderson and Deborah Jenson). His current research on the social dimensions of risk and vulnerability during the 2003 heat wave disaster in Paris has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Mairie de Paris.