Answer by Peter Leykam:
I forget which anthropologist it was – I think Evans-Pritchard – who would tell his students “These are 20 books that every anthropologist should read, so read them and you'll be an anthropologist.” Things have changed a lot since then – the field is sufficiently fragmented that there's no way to read everything, or even every book that lots of people think is important.
The best advice I got in grad school was from someone further along in my program, who walked into the student lounge when I was having an
anxiety attack about all the things I needed to read. “I need to read Barthes, Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Baidou, Baitalle, Benjamin, and that's just the B's!” “No you don't,” he calmly replied, “You're an anthropologist not a philosopher – you don't need to master everything every important theorist has ever said, you just need to understand enough of them to be able to carry out your fieldwork, and to make your research interesting to other people. If taking a few ideas from Baudrillard will help you do that – that's great – but otherwise why bother trying to figure out the nuances of everything he said? He's not a very good writer.”
There are some books that all American Cultural Anthropologists have read or "should" read – Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Culture, Mauss' The Gift, E.E. Evans-Pritchard's The Nuer, Foucault's Discipline and Punish. These are important to read because they're foundational texts that a lot of anthropologist respond to or assume a familiarity with in their writings. You should have a good idea of the main points of Foucault, Marx, Durkheim and Geertz because people tend to assume a familiarity with them in class discussions. (I didn't read some of these folks before grad school and got by just fine, though).
The must read books are different based on your specific interests – if you are interested in economic development programs in Peru you should read James Ferguson's The Anti-Politics Machine, which is an important analysis of the politics of economic development programs. You could probably skip Andrew Pickering's The Mangle of Practice, which discusses the creation of scientific knowledge within the laboratory, though. If you're interested in studying AIDS clinics in the Bronx, on the other hand, my recommendations would be reversed.
One thing to keep in mind is that every graduate program that you go through will have a core course when you start that will get you up to speed. I entered a MA program in anthropology having only taken two anthropology classes as an undergrad, and there were people in my PhD program coming from Religious Studies, Biology and elsewhere. Those classes won't be focused on having you read everything you need to read – that's impossible – but they're there to hit some really important works and to teach you to think like an anthropologist. If you're worried about being singled out in class “My God, you haven't read Political Systems of Highland Burma?!?” like some bad nightmare where you show up to class in your underwear, I wouldn't. My department is probably friendlier than most, but I've never seen or heard of that happening. (And feel free to skip Political Systems of Highland Burma, its a really boring read).
Another is that the entire first couple of years of your graduate training will be figuring out what the list of books you need to read for your project is. Most anthropologists are working in areas where there is no obvious bibliography to read – if you're doing research on the fashion industry in Shanghai, for example, there are some books on the Chinese silk industry, some ethnographies of fashion in Japan and elsewhere, but other than that you need to make it up.
Read books written by potential advisors. First of all, if you're talking to professors as you apply to programs it helps to have some familiarity of their work – your relationship with your advisor is like any relationship, it helps to
establish that you're interested in them as individuals and not someone who happens to be in a prestigious department (although the potential advisors I spoke with was more interested in talking about me than themselves – not because I'm particularly fascinating, but because they weren't narcissists). And it helps to work with someone who's work you find intellectually stimulating (I know plenty of people who get by with advisors who's work they don't like, but its best to go with someone that fascinates and inspires you).
The other must read books are those written by people in whatever department you wind up going to. Friction by Anna Tsing, The Book of Jerry Falwell by Susan Harding, Desiring China by Lisa Rofel – I think that they're important to
read because they're brilliant, but for someone entering my department (UC Santa Cruz) they're also important to read because they're written by senior members of the department. They arise out of the intellectual atmosphere of the department, and they're the works that people in the department are addressing in some way or another. (Its easy to figure out what those books are – just ask a faculty member or grad student in the department what books by faculty members they'd recommend reading)
And some practical time saving advice – read annual reviews and edited volumes. Review articles – which you can find in Annual Reviews of Anthropology – discuss a large number of books and articles on a specific topic (e.g. Consumption and Consumerism, Ethnographies of Finance, Work and Labour, etc.) and relate them to each other. They're useful because you can get a general understanding of what the important works are in that topic and how they relate to each other. Scholarly works are not just the opinions of individual scholars, but they're a conversation where scholars respond to other people writing on the same topic. Figuring out what that conversation is all about is the most difficult part of reading in grad school. While some people explicitly say in their introductions, “I'm building on X because she's brilliant,” or “This study will show how much of an idiot Y is,” a lot of the time its less obvious. A review article is someone's attempt to write what that conversation looks like – so it will give you sentence or two summary of a book, a basic idea of why its important, and an understanding of the wider intellectual context that it sits in. A lot of the time that's all you really need to know about a book. (A lot of grad school consists of learning how to talk about books you haven't read.)
Edited volumes generally come from a conference where people write papers on a single theme and then publish them as chapters in a book. The introduction of the volume will be an essay that tries to situate the individual chapters in terms of the state of the field. So in a volume about post-socialist anthropology, for example, you might get a brief overview of ethnographies of Eastern Europe/Soviet Union; what happened after the fall of the Soviet Union; what's going on in the field now and how the individual authors respond to all of that.
What should you be looking for in all of this? The first is what are the big works that everyone is responding to. You should probably read these (Although you don't always have to – Veblen wrote the first big book on consumerism, but you can skip it.) The second is what are the works that resonate with your interests – because you're the best judge of what you need to read.