I have been a huge fan of Oxford University Press’s Oxford World’s Classics series since the late 1990s. The number of World’s Classics that line my shelves is well over one hundred and counting. I prefer their editions to those of other publishers who issue their own versions of the classics for a few reasons: the cover art, the font type and size of the text, the wide range of classics offered, and the quality of the editorial apparatus which appears in each book. Their introductions are always well written and informative, and the notes, though at times extensive, where some notes sections are longer than the text they accompany, are also quite well done and put together.
But it is another OUP series that I’d like to discuss here: Four years ago I stumbled upon the Very Short Introduction series, which has been in existence for about twenty years, and is currently at about four hundred titles and counting. I have already read two-dozen books from the series and there are another two dozen I’d like to read. Each book is between one hundred and one hundred sixty pages, including index and further reading sections. The topics cover a very wide range: art to literature, philosophy to religion, history to science, historical individuals and writers to various ideologies. There really is something for everyone in this series, whether you are well versed in a subject or want to read and learn about a new field.
My interests are commonly known, but have been branching out in the last few years into more history-oriented subjects, and so I picked up the volumes on the Roman Empire, World War I, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Roman Republic. I certainly enjoyed each one, but the Roman Republic was so fascinating and well done that I immediately wanted to read Livy’s Rise of Rome (though I haven’t yet). This, I must say, is exactly what a nonfiction book about a subject should make you do—react with the desire to read more about it, and read books by those who may have lived during the historical period or event under discussion, if that’s what you are reading about, for example.
As for subjects upon which you may already know quite a bit, these books offer you interesting new insights that you haven’t encountered elsewhere. I have read widely for a decade in Eastern philosophy (Hinduism and Buddhism) and specialized in Romanticism while getting my master’s degree, so when I read the VSIs on these subjects I didn’t think I’d learn anything new, but I did. These books are extremely current upon publication, with fresh new perspectives offered by published scholars in the field, and this, aside from the brevity of each book, and the light touch of the writer, is what makes these books and this series absolutely invaluable and appealing. A case in point concerning the readability of these books—a year ago I read the one on Consciousness, which is the much shorter version of the author’s volume on the subject. Naturally, for such an abstract and elusive topic you’d think the writing would be very dry and full of jargon, but it wasn’t at all. The author makes you see that consciousness is elusive but not as abstract as you’d normally think. I was very impressed and really engaged in the book thanks to the clarity of the author’s writing, her tone of voice, and her profound interest in and knowledge of the subject.
But at other times these books, though informative and of definite interest to those already knowledgeable in the area, can be dry, riddled with terminology, and difficult to get through for those first coming to the subject. One instance would be when I tried to read the fairly recent volume on the Silk Road, a subject that for about three years now I’ve been interested in learning about further, but the author’s writing, from my viewpoint, is rather dry and plodding, making the first chapter hard to read through, and so I left the book unread. Another VSI that disappointed me, particularly because of the numerous specialized terms used in it, was the History of Astronomy. I approached the book because astronomy has always fascinated me, though not as much as the arts and humanities, and so I thought it would be an interesting read from the historical view, but found the book to be loaded with jargon that wasn’t clearly explained, which caused me to give up on reading it as well.
All in all, I highly recommend this series to anyone who is an avid reader in a variety of different fields, or to anyone who would like to take the plunge into a brand-new subject they’ve never engaged with, or haven’t encountered since their school days.
If you’d like to view the full list of VSIs, you can find it here.