THIS PAST WINTER AT the California Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena, a London bookseller offered for sale a copy of a book called the Rudimentum novitiorum from 1475. It is a book famous primarily for its maps, and very expensive on account of them, and like many ancient rare books its text is almost incidental to its collectability. But it may in fact be the earliest of all printed books of a genre with which we are very familiar: the short guide to a subject. Its title means literally something like "the basics for beginners," and its text provides a history of the world for aspiring priests in the novitiate. "World History for Dummies" would also not be an inaccurate translation of the title, and like the publishers of the "Dummies" books, the "Complete Idiot's Guides," the "Britannica Guides," the "Understand" series and so on, its publisher, one Lucas Brandis, doubtless thought that he was onto a sure thing. The ignorance of the clergy in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe was legendary, and what more likely to be a strong and persistent seller than a basic narrative of history in six sections, concluding with the advent of Christianity?
The idea behind Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introduction" series, then, is nothing new, despite the quote from the Guardian on the front flap of many of the VSI books, which describes the series as "a new concept." The Greek word for it was isogoge, and an example devoted to the subject of rhetoric is known from as early as the 5th century BCE. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance had their artes and methodi, and Kant's borrowing of another Greek word introduced the word "propaeduetic" into the German language and eventually into English. (It means a "subject or course of study which forms an introduction to or preparation for an art or science, or to more advanced study," to cite the OED.) The propaedeutic was common in 18th century England, when dozens if not hundreds of books with titles like The Compleat Surveyor or The Compleat Cook or The Compleat Gamester proliferated and competed for the middlebrow middle-class market. Izaak Walton's earlier book on fishing, The Compleat Angler of 1653, is the most famous example in this genre, but while valued both for its prose and its philosophical musings, it too was first and foremost an introduction to its subject, if somewhat longer than the books of that kind that we are used to. An early 20th century series of much renown was the "Teach Yourself" books, which began in 1938 and dealt mainly but not exclusively with learning languages. The "Dummies" and "Idiot's" series both grew out of a book about the DOS operating system, and the former now comprises over 1600 titles with the latter rather far behind at some 450. Oxford University Press's VSI library is more high-tone, as its name suggests, and while it is never likely to include books on playing the guitar or ice-fishing or power yoga, the series, begun in 1995, already includes over 300 titles "in a variety of disciplines," as they put it. Those disciplines are primarily but not only scholarly, with philosophy clearly ranked the highest. Individual volumes address Continental Philosophy, Existentialism, Reality, Logic, the Philosophy of Law, Indian Philosophy, and so on, with many volumes devoted to individual philosophers. Other disciplines have not yet merited attention at the individual practitioner level, with occasional eccentric exceptions such...read more