By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 20/01/2017

Toward the end of the year there can be a glut of ‘best of’ publications, but The Conversation Yearbook 2016 stands out as an enjoyable, wide-ranging collection of essays.

conversation-yearbook-coverThe Conversation has been running in Australia since 2011, collating news and views from the academic and research community on hot topics of the day or longer-burning issues. My main dealing with The Conversation is through its science and technology content, so it was a surprising joy to read more broadly through the Yearbook, in subjects ranging from music, politics, history and education.

Edited by John Watson – The Conversation’s cities and policies editor – the overall package is a select offering from the thousands of articles published in 2016. It’s given Watson plenty to choose from, with the result being the creme of the crop. In other similar collections, I’ve sometimes found the quality varied, with some perhaps making it in simply to fill a quota, but that’s not the case here.

From here in New Zealand, I generally find it difficult to follow Australian politics. At some stages, it’s hard even to keep up with who’s the current Prime Minister. But I found the essays on politics, especially Malcolm Turnbull’s ups and downs, enlightening and interesting.

Essays are organised into broad themes, including inequality, health and food, and ‘fighting for a fair go’. This final section on its own would have made the book worth it for me, with eloquent essays on deaths in custody among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, disability discrimination in schools and gender bias in the coding world. These strongly researched, authoritative essays are what really make The Conversation shine for me. They may not always be the flashiest writers, given their main role is in research and teaching, but there are stunning exceptions and the weight of the authors who really know their topics elevates many of the pieces.

Of course, all of these articles are available free online, so why should you buy them in a book? Being able to read in a physical format changed how I felt about the writing. Rather than a rapid skim at my work computer, or on my phone, having a book immediately makes me more likely to read leisurely on the train or over lunch. I almost feel it suits the nature of the writing more, to be able to take your time and consider the points being made, removed from the rapid, over-loaded nature of reading online when the content is never-ending and there’s always a new thing calling for your attention.

But my favourite part was reading essays I wouldn’t have clicked on during my busy day, which includes reading countless articles and publications. When would I have read about Shakespeare’s influence on Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, or a dissection of a protest song?

There is still plenty of content to keep science-minded audiences happy, from the Great Barrier Reef and the chemistry of food to research fraud and the psychology of partner choice. With a final word on Pauline Hanson 2.0 and the “war on experts”, there’s a reminder why a forum like The Conversation in general, and the yearbook specifically, are a welcome addition to the support and promotion of The Expert.

The Conversation Yearbook 2016
Melbourne University Press, Nov 2016, AUD$19.99