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 as Nelson Mandela, Kafka, and the Marquis de Sade. One might amusingly suppose that the trivium and quadrivium lie behind this emphasis on philosophy, but of the seven liberal arts that defined humanistic education for so many centuries, a pedagogical ideal with roots in late Antiquity, only music and logic have so far merited their own volumes in the VSI Library. Perhaps the others (grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry and astronomy) are in the works.
In the broadest sense, the VSI library falls under the rubric of lifelong learning, or what American colleges and universities call "extension" or "continuing education." One can trace this idea back through the mechanics' institutes of the 19th century and books like Samuel Smiles's Self-Help of 1859 to the Enlightenment ideal of the democratization of education found, for example, in the work of Helvetius, and which gave birth to such publishing projects as Algarotti's Newtonianism for the Ladies. As the Rudimentum novitiorum suggests, lifelong learning is in fact a concept that printers and publishers have invested in more or less since Gutenberg's time. (Gutenberg himself may have printed a schoolboy Latin grammar before he undertook the Bible in the 1440s, a kind of "very short introduction" to the language for schoolboys.) If the predecessors of the VSI library have a 500-year history, however, their floruit certainly seems to be now. Why is this so? To whom do these books appeal? Is there really a strong market for, say, a very short introduction to Herodotus or Aristotle in the age of Wikipedia and the Internet, even at the modest price of $11.95?
The group of VSIs on Greek philosophy and classical civilization that form the "sample population" for this review reveal many common elements. The books range from 100-150 pages, which, given the small format (what in the old days was called a duodecimo) means a text of some 40,000 words. Most are divided into about six chapters, and all contain a limited apparatus (suggestions for further reading, chronology, index etc.) The books share a common design. They are set ragged-right with lots of leading and no paragraph indents. The illustrations are all black-and-white, and given the small size of the books they mostly reproduce badly. Maps are hard to read, detail in photographs is lost, and insufficient information is provided on the nature and location of the originals from which the images are made. For example, the final illustration in Jonathan Barnes's Aristotle, described in the cut-line as "Aristotle and Herpyllis, according to a common medieval fantasy," shows an early German woodcut image of a woman riding side-saddle on a man's back — he is on all fours — with a riding crop in her raised right hand. No source is indicated, and Herpyllis is neither identified nor listed in the index. (She was Aristotle's second wife.)
The authors are recognized experts on their subjects, and although three of the books in this group are repurposed from books already published (Paul Cartledge's Ancient Greece, C.C.W. Taylor's Socrates, and Barnes's Aristotle), most have been specially written for the series. One would expect the writers of propaedeutics to adopt an accessible and straightforward style, but there is really no discernible "VSI-ese," and the writer of an individual book seems to have a good deal of latitude stylistically. Jonathan Barnes stays closest to traditional academic prose. His Aristotle is at times almost too demanding for a neophyte. Paul Cartledge (Ancient Greece) cannot resist using words that will surely send the average reader to the dictionary (congeners, brachylogy, synoecism etc.). On the other hand, Cartledge also likes slang words and expressions that scholars would certainly eschew if they were writing for the Classical Quarterly (gi-normous, super-hero, wideboys on the make, etc.), and the raciness these word choices produce is certainly welcome. Other writers are equally wowed rather than cowed by the glamour of slang. Helen Morales (Classical Mythology) calls Herakles a superstar, denominates Pygmalion's statue of Aphrodite "his very own 'walkin' talkin' livin' doll'," and dismisses Achilles as a psychopath. Catherine Osborne (Presocratic Philosophy) has Diogenes Laertius say in cowboy lingo "mighty bad" and "not so fast," while Mary Beard and John Henderson (Classics) draw from the worlds of theater and radio for eye-catching chapter sub-headings such as "Bums in Seats" and "Golden Oldies — The Latest Craze." VSIs are published both in the United Kingdom and the United States, but writers do not avoid Britishisms that will puzzle American readers (spindle-shanked, guy as a verb) or amuse them (to take down the beeswax, to butter ones' parsnips). Awkward turns of phrase are rare, but when Cartledge is allowed to say "immediately preceding unqualified paean" or Julia Annas (Plato) to state that "His ideas on how states should be organized reject the idea..." — an idea rejecting an idea? — one wishes that the editors had pulled their weight more forcefully. While blatant errors are not to be expected from well-established scholars, Cartledge (or his editor) should be told that that strife between peoples is internecine, not intestine (twice), and Morales that "equally as good" is a reprehensible solecism.
Stylistic and organizational choices vary widely from VSI book to book. Some writers, betting that their potential readership is more familiar with contemporary culture than with ancient and with literary history (surely a safe bet), bring in analogous ideas or works to give their subjects "relevance." Jennifer T. Roberts (Herodotus) frequently mentions Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient and Ryszard Kapucinski's Travels With Herodotus, in both of which Herodotus's Histories play an important role. She even illustrates the Alamo ("a popular tourist destination today") in the context of a discussion of the battle of Thermopylae. Catherine Osborne, on the other hand, although she begins her VSI to Presocratic Philosophy with the description of a recently discovered text by Empedocles, does not mention Matthew Arnold's famous poem Empedocles on Etna. Her summary of Empedocles' view of the world as love and strife sounds surprisingly similar to D.H. Lawrence's wonderful late poem "Kissing and Horrid Strife." ("Life is for kissing and for horrid strife. / Life is for the angels and the Sunderers. / Life is for the daimons and the demons, / those that put honey on our lips, and those that put salt.") Lawrence was clearly reading the Presocratic philosophers during the composition of his final poems — he taxes Anaximander in another piece — but he too goes unmentioned. Beard and Henderson (Classics) do, by contrast, think to mention Poe's poem "To Helen" from which the famous lines "the glory that was Greece, / and the grandeur that was Rome" come. To call it "a dreadful and forgotten poem," however, demonstrates ignorance of Poe's reputation and of the infinite number of times the poem has been anthologized. Julia Annas (Plato and Ancient Philosophy) is sufficiently modern to insist on feminine pronouns and possessive adjectives, and Helen Morales devotes a chapter of Classical Mythology to sexual politics, wondering even "what a VSI to Classical Mythology that's written through the body would look like?" Most readers needing a VSI to classical mythology would be unlikely to be interested in such a question, the answer to which must be, well, it would most certainly not look like a VSI. An odd inconsistency in the books is the use of BC/AD versus BCE/CE, some using one and some the other system of reference, along national lines. (Americans have been more willing to adopt the newer, non-denominational one.)
These books are clearly not intended for scholars (although one can imagine that, in a pinch, the Assistant Professor of English teaching a class on renaissance drama and pressed to bone up on Aristotle in order to teach the roots and ideals of tragedy might turn to a VSI). Aimed at the average or general reader and not overly demanding, they have found a much larger pool of buyers than the Academy could furnish, their printing histories documenting multiple impressions. They are mostly free of scholarly argument, although bias, or at any rate opinionated negativity crops up occasionally. Beard and Henderson in Classics and Annas in Ancient Philosophy sideswipe Nietzsche and Heraclitus respectively, for instance, in a manner with which the authors of the VSIs devoted to Nietzsche and the Presocratic philosophers, Richard Tanner and Catherine Osborne, would surely take issue.
In terms of style, then, but also in terms of length, the VSIs can be situated about midway between a Wikipedia article and a full-fledged scholarly monograph, a terrain which despite prophecies concerning "the death of the book" undeniably remains densely populated with needy readers of almost every age, sort, and condition. When the Venetian scholar-printer Aldus Manutius decided to create a library of all the surviving texts of Antiquity in the 1490s, exactly half a millennium before the first VSI (Classics!) was published, he fixed on a small format, a standard typeface and design, and a low price, in the hopes of appealing to a readership at all (literate) levels of European society. Oxford University Press has essentially done a similar thing without requiring their readers to know Latin or Greek, or any foreign language for that matter. (Of all the books under consideration here only one, and then on only one occasion, uses a Latin or Greek word without a full explanation. Helen Morales in Classical Mythology is a bit vague on the significance of stuprum, a word meaning fornication or illicit sex.) Aldus imagined a reader slipping his edition of Virgil into a girdle or pocket or saddle-bag, as one can easily imagine the VSI Herodotus being back-packed in the Sierras, carried to the beach, or whipped out on a bus or a metro car or a flight from Frankfurt to Athens. Airport bookstores should definitely be stocking a selection of VSIs. Travelers whose curiosity extends beyond novels printed on newsprint might easily decide to explore a subject only vaguely familiar to them, such as classical mythology. Even in the airless and soporific confines of an economy-class airplane seat it would be hard to resist laughing at Helen Morales's definition of Elysium as "a kind of Martha's Vineyard ... for the deceased."