Very Short Introductions

June 16, 2010 at 12:00 am 6 comments

For those of you unfamiliar with Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series, it is a lengthy set of books each of which are less than 1/2″ thick and introduce you (quickly, mind) to some topic, theme, person, idea, or place. The idea being that everyone has a gap in their knowledge somewhere and they could benefit from a quick introduction to fill in those gaps. The topics of these introductions are extremely varied, ranging from Restoration England to Nothing (it’s about physics) to Ba’hai to Advertising and back.

I had always been intrigued by the pretty watercolor covers of the books and by the humorousness of coming across a book called something like “Empire: A Very Short Introduction” (it really exists). Almost any broad topic followed by “: A Very Short Introduction” struck me as inherently amusing and I became increasingly willing to give the books a go. Could they really sneak everything about agnosticism, human rights, or privacy into 200 pages or less?

The short answer is no. The long answer is that that isn’t the point. These books do not aim to make you an expert on German philosophy, utopianism, or documentary film. They aim to give you a brief rundown of a topic so you know just a little bit more than you did before and, if it is particularly well done, give you a basic knowledge of the topic as well as an interest to delve deeper.

I chose “Empire” as my first VSI and I found the author’s sprint through the history of all empires (geographic, economic, political, and otherwise) to be absolutely fascinating. There are some empires I know a good deal about, but most of the ones discussed in the VSI I either knew nothing about or just knew the basics of. It thoroughly whet my appetite to find out more in an almost frustrating way. The book would reference something in passing and, before I could even process what the reference was about, the narrative was off again, sprinting away from the reference and towards something else. You have to move quickly when you have so little space and such big topics, and the result is often both intriguing and frustrating for the reader.

As a series, it is a little touch-and-go since the authors are all different and expert in their field so you can’t have uniform quality. But if you’re looking to fill any of your own personal knowledge-gaps, I can’t recommend anything else more highly. They’re succinct, interesting, and pleasantly portable. And, with 200-odd volumes and counting, no doubt you’ll have no trouble finding a very short introduction on the gap of your choice.


In the interest of full disclosure (and FCC regulations), you should know that my former roommate, who works for OUP, gave me a few of these free of charge to read. This in no way affected my opinion of them, although I would note that for such little books, the VSIs can be a bit pricey. I probably would not have spent $15 on them and thus would not have enjoyed them save for my roommate’s gifts.


Entry filed under: Non-fiction. Tags: , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eva  |  June 16, 2010 at 9:19 am

    My library has a few of these: the one I really want to read is Hermione Lee’s Biography: VSI. I loved her bio of Woolf, and I really want to read her bio of Wharton in the next year or so. :)

    • 2. Corey  |  June 16, 2010 at 9:54 am

      Sounds like a good one (and now I’ll have to check out Lee’s biographies, the subject matter sounds great)! I’m currently pecking away at Witchcraft: A VSI, which is pretty interesting but quite conversational. He keeps saying things like “You are no doubt sitting there reading this book and thinking/feeling/doing X.” It’s strange to picture him writing the book while picturing me reading his book at some misty future date. So far he’s been eerily accurate! Perhaps the influence of witchery. :)

  • 3. KT  |  June 16, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    These sound amazing! What a great way to get quickly up-to-speed on any given topic :D

    • 4. Corey  |  June 16, 2010 at 8:02 pm

      Totally! It almost (almost) made me want to read some of the math or science ones!

      • 5. KT  |  June 16, 2010 at 8:25 pm

        I could use Physics: A Very Short Introduction, for real. Or Computer Science: A Very Short Introduction — if only because either of those would let me appreciate xkcd to a much greater extent ;)

      • 6. Corey  |  June 17, 2010 at 7:25 am

        Ha, totally! I’m always sad when they make some involved physics joke and I just sit there failing; glad to hear I’m not the only one!


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