12 Months, 12 Significant Books from UC Press

Alison Mudditt

This year I’m pleased to inaugurate an annual year-end wrap-up bringing to your attention 12 books I’ve personally selected as standing out—a difficult task among the approximately 200 titles we publish each year.

Whether from topicality, painstaking scholarship, or the ability to strike a chord of resonance in the academy and far beyond, these volumes represent the core of the mission of the University of California Press—to drive progressive change by seeking out and cultivating the brightest minds and giving them voice, reach, and impact.

We remain grateful to all who produce, read, and engage with some of the most necessary and thought-provoking scholarship created within—and outside of—the academy. Our global dialogue is richer for it.


We’re very pleased that Patrick Modiano’s work has just been acknowledged with this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature—the Stockholm festivities were just last week—but we knew years ago that his writing was extraordinary.

As Executive Editor, Naomi Schneider, has noted of her 1999 acquisition of Dora Bruder:

Modiano has done something transformative: used investigative sleuthing to fictionally explore identity, survival, and, most of all, memory.

Preserving the legacy of one of the 20th century’s most influential advocates for peace and justice, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., is described by one historian as being the “equivalent to a conversation” with King.

Volume VII, To Save the Soul of America, covers the early 1960s, offering readers details of King’s early relationship with President John F. Kennedy, and how King addressed an increasingly militant movement.

UC Press continues to be as honored by the responsibility of producing this 14-volume edition as we were on the day Coretta Scott King visited our offices in Berkeley to confirm our association with her husband’s legacy.


Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times continues our ongoing exploration of topics of national—and often international—scope.

Situated within the “new normal of global economic insecurity,” Marianne Cooper delves into American financial anxiety—from the surprising anxieties of the rich to the critical role of women in keeping struggling families afloat.

Her case studies integrate issues of family fracture, social class, and the dynamics of financial angst, and expose the strategies affluent, middle-class, and poor families rely on to survive the maelstrom.

Father and son Joel and Eric Best lay bare a troubling financial story in The Student Loan Mess, which describes the student loan crisis in detail. TLS has called the book, “Probably the best and clearest book on the United States’ complex student debt problem.”

Can higher education remain a central part of the American dream? What are the prospects for debt-burdened young adults in this already-beleaguered economy? The future of American education presents a crisis we must address now.

Not just an engaging behind-the-scenes history of a complicated topic—the ramifications of which touch the millions who navigate the world each day—Ethan N. Elkind’s Railtown details how economics and politics inevitably intertwine.

Other car-dependent cities can learn invaluable lessons from car-centered Los Angeles’s embrace of rail.


Peter Hecht’s Weed Land is a book with California origins but national scope.

California’s Proposition 215, the nation’s first medical marijuana law, was passed in 1996.  Now, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some way, and changing statutes continue to make headlines.

What are the political, legal, economic, social, and medical dynamics that have resulted in so much change in just a generation? If “as goes California, so goes the nation” remains true, what will California’s pioneering stance mean for the US as a whole? Independent investigative journalist Hecht’s lively exploration offers fascinating answers.


Anthony Barnosky’s Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth is nothing less than a guidebook for saving the planet—a guidebook informed by Barnosky’s serious and far-reaching scholarship about the looming Sixth Mass Extinction.

You may have seen the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink, which aired November 30. You can follow paleo-biologist Barnosky’s evidence-based narrative via this book—and ponder his strategies for avoiding what short-sighted energy, agricultural, and financial policies may mean . . . unless we act now.

Even as we debate and act upon such time-sensitive issues as planetary health, our dedication to supporting vital scholarship in the humanities continues. The genesis of Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up was a lecture series at UC Berkeley, and it represents the best of the scholarly tradition: illuminating highly specific materials from ever-new angles—and frankly acknowledging what remains puzzling about a culture across the chasm of time from ours.

As Gregory Hays’s review in the New York Review of Books notes, Mary Beard is “as close to a public intellectual as the field of Roman studies currently has.” Beard is a professor in classics at Cambridge. Her Times Literary Supplement blog, A Don’s Life, tackles a range of topics: from not unexpected musings on the Elgin Marbles to such decidedly trans-disciplinary matters as David Cameron’s tweets.

How did Romans make sense of laughter? And, of course, how does our humor mirror or depart from theirs? Anyone who ponders the notion of what is culturally determined and what is universal will appreciate this book.

With scholarship as erudite, but on a much more sobering topic, S. Lochlann Jain’s Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us continues to win honors (among them the Victor Turner and Diana Forsythe prizes); every few weeks it seems we hear of another.

The startling statistic that makes Jain’s book so significant? Nearly half of all Americans will be diagnosed with an invasive cancer.

Anthropologist Jain harnesses history, oncology, law, economics, and literature to explain why cancer continues to stagger physicians, researchers, patients, caretakers, and policy-makers. Part memoir and part cultural analysis, Malignant offers compelling if difficult reading.

On a related note, what does it mean to be the nation’s doctor? Though this is a journalistic rather than scholarly volume, it seems right to mention Surgeon General’s Warning: How Politics Crippled the Nation’s Doctor here, given that journalist Mike Stobbe explores the federal government’s ability—or lack thereof—to influence public health. (And especially given that the cancer warnings on cigarette packs may be the most salient connection to the office in the public’s mind.)

By tracing stories of how surgeons general such as Luther Terry, C. Everett Koop, and Joycelyn Elders created policies and confronted controversy in response to such issues as smoking, AIDS, and masturbation, Stobbe highlights how this office’s decline is harming our national well-being.


How often does grand opera make the news?

In 2014, often.

Between the labor unrest and the Death of Klinghoffer protests, a new history of the Met is timely, and Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, by Charles and Mirella Jonas Affron, is full of examples of previous moments of labor unrest—zeitgeist-y social issues à la Klinghoffer stretching back more than a century.

But this volume encompasses much more: the authors had access to unpublished documents from the Met’s archives and drew upon interviews and recordings to trace the history of this now globally important cultural institution. From its 1883 roots to recent innovations in live HD simulcasting, this treatment will interest even putative non-opera fans.

I’ll end with Robert Cozzolino’s work, David Lynch: The Unified Field, though perhaps this is not the first you’ve heard of this title. Because Lynch is so well known as a filmmaker, this catalogue for his first major US museum exhibition at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is getting a lot of publicity, but may still surprise some who aren’t familiar with Lynch’s full artistic oeuvre.

Lynch has worked as a visual artist since the late 60s, and Cozzolino coordinated closely with him to showcase this collection of almost 100 drawings, paintings, and prints.

Even if you cannot attend the show, we hope you will enjoy this, our latest exhibition catalogue.