How to Be a Know-It-All
October 10, 2017 6:52 AM   Subscribe

What you learn from the Very Short Introduction series: Like its subject, “Teeth” is both a freestanding entity and part of a larger body: the Very Short Introduction series, a project of Oxford University Press. At present, that series consists of five hundred and twenty-six books; “Teeth” clocks in at No. 384. If you are so inclined, you can also read a Very Short Introduction to, among a great many other things, Rivers, Mountains, Metaphysics, the Mongols, Chaos, Cryptography, Forensic Psychology, Hinduism, Autism, Puritanism, Fascism, Free Will, Drugs, Nutrition, Crime Fiction, Madness, Malthus, Medical Ethics, Hieroglyphics, the Russian Revolution, the Reagan Revolution, Dinosaurs, Druids, Plague, Populism, and the Devil. (SL New Yorker).
posted by mandolin conspiracy (23 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
Look around you.

Look around you!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:54 AM on October 10 [13 favorites]


I've tried reading a couple of the Very Short Introduction series books. Rarely have I felt more dumb.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:16 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I love this series so so much. I have read about 25 of them; only 2 or 3 were less than very good.
posted by thelonius at 7:22 AM on October 10 [4 favorites]


I also love the Very Short Introduction series. I recommend the one on literary theory.
posted by Panthalassa at 7:39 AM on October 10 [4 favorites]


Panthalassa, you're in the one on Oceans
posted by thelonius at 7:54 AM on October 10 [9 favorites]


There's something so seductive about these books – they're bite-sized and inexpensive, they pretty much fit in a pocket, they look great together on a shelf. I look for them in used bookstores and pick up pretty much every one I come across... my most recent find was A Very Short Introduction to the History of Astronomy.

The best one I've read is the one on Barthes, it's exceptionally well-written and engaging. The "Design" and "Networks" ones are also very good. The writing style and tone vary considerably from book to book – a couple were so boring I could hardly finish them (including A Very Short Introduction to Nothing, which sounded so promising!).
posted by oulipian at 8:10 AM on October 10 [4 favorites]


Best line of 2017: "...it’s a profound relief, these days, to press our collective feverish forehead against the cold steel of actual information."
posted by corvikate at 8:12 AM on October 10 [31 favorites]


The one on Social & Cultural Anthropology by Monaghan and Just is terrific. I've used it as a textbook several times in a 300-level class intended mainly for psych/sociology majors with no background in anthropology but a requirement to spend most of their time reading ethnography rather than intro material. What's especially nice about it is how it works in conversational anecdotes from the authors' own fieldwork to illustrate key points.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:13 AM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Panthalassa, you're in the one on Oceans

I am a Very Large Ocean though
posted by Panthalassa at 8:28 AM on October 10 [7 favorites]


The "Design" and "Networks" ones are also very good.
Design was excellent. One of my favorites. I learned a lot.

a couple were so boring I could hardly finish them (including A Very Short Introduction to Nothing, which sounded so promising!).
A Very Short Introduction To Reality was surprisingly good, though.

The ones I was disappointed in were Metaphysics, Continental Philosophy, and Classical Mythology.
posted by thelonius at 8:33 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I enjoy the VSI series. I'd love to write one. When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was to read the "Macropedia" articles of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Most of those articles were excellent works of scholarship by significant researchers in their field, but written so as to be understandable by the generally educated person instead of specialists. That is, they were basically the same thing as the Very Short Introductions. Apparently, the Encylopedia Brittanica is no longer printed, a causalty of the internet, I guess. If they bound up the VSI in a multi-volume alphabetized, fully indexed edition, I'd definitely consider buying it. Especially if I had children.
posted by dis_integration at 8:38 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]


I love those. Dense, erudite, and frequently uncompromising. Raw educational crack.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:41 AM on October 10 [2 favorites]


My absolute fave is the one on Chaos. I read my first copy to shreds. I didn't know there was one on Barthes; now I gotta get it, can't wait to read it, thanks for the tip! Like the Penguin Classics books, the full set is something I've always wanted to buy en masse. There's a full list of title which can be viewed here. You can also browse by subject.

This series always reminds me of the antecdote David L. Goodstein relayed in the book, Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun:
"Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, "Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics." Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But he came back a few days later to say, "I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it."
There's been a few of the books in the series I didn't feel were really good, and in those cases I've always wondered if it's because we don't understand it as well as we think we do, even if an expert in the field wrote it - which is useful information in itself. (The more fact based ones, and less things like mythology, of course.) Or their approach was just off a little and didn't go freshman level enough, e.g. the one on mountains, which seemed like it would be super interesting but as the article author noted read like a report.

Aside from those few, that's what these books are: freshman lectures for the inquisitive. For the subjects that one might know more than the freshman level, it's fascinating and informative to observe what a top level mind in the field chooses as the important details from each subject worth including in the book, and how they reduce it; it's a glimpse into how these minds approach the field themselves. They're just really fun to read.
posted by barchan at 9:25 AM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Me, I prefer the original, but hey, what do I know?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:44 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Overall, I really love the Very Short Introductions. The one that I though was kind of odd was 'Galileo', which the author used to expound his very! own! theory! about Galileo.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:05 AM on October 10


On the topic of science biography, the one on Faraday was excellent.
posted by thelonius at 11:08 AM on October 10


Porting this comment over from the Hacker News discussion - this is an ironically non-short introduction to the VSI series.
posted by ajryan at 12:00 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


It's good to know that the biographies are about white men because the were grandfathered in from an old series, but Kathryn Schulz is right, that's not a valid excuse. If you're going to include biographies in your series, it's shameful to not include people who are not white men.
posted by Kattullus at 12:03 PM on October 10


It's good to know that the biographies are about white men because the were grandfathered in from an old series, but Kathryn Schulz is right, that's not a valid excuse. If you're going to include biographies in your series, it's shameful to not include people who are not white men.

Gandhi, Suleiman, Nelson Mandela, and Mohammed were white?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:08 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


I read the one on superconductivity. I learned a ton! Fortunately I was able to get it out of the library, because they cost a ton too.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:33 PM on October 10


I love collecting these, and heatherlogan (and anyone else on a book budget) - you can often pick them up in good condition used. There are several for under $4 (including shipping) at ABEBooks.

I've managed to get a couple dozen at the Friends of the Library sales. In fact, I just realized I have the one on Modern Art. I had completely forgotten I had it. That's going on top of the pile!

Thanks for this, mandolin conspiracy - great post!
posted by kristi at 9:37 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


(Also I really like the covers. The design just makes me want to collect them all. This is a good thing.)
posted by kristi at 9:38 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Tell Me No Lies: Gandhi, Suleiman, Nelson Mandela, and Mohammed were white?

Fair point. I used to work in a bookstore that stocked Very Short Introductions by the ton and it struck me that all the single-person books focused on white guys. But I should have checked the list before making an intemperate comment. Besides your three examples (I couldn't find the Suleiman VSI), Confucius, Jesus, Mao and Buddha also get biographies. The rest of the biographies are: Galileo, Aristotle, Herodotus, Nietzche, Engels, Kant, Macchiavelli, Clausewitz, Hegel, Locke, Hume, Keynes, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Marquis de Sade, Spinoza, Augustine, Malthus, Kierkegaard, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Hobbes, Freud, Voltaire, Kafka, St. Paul, Jung, Plato, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Martin Luther, Bernard Russell, Heidegger, Faraday, Aquinas, Barthes, Foucault, Habermas, Newton, Tocqueville, Alexander the Great, Dante, Goethe, Copernicus.

That's forty-four white guys and seven non-white guys . And as far as I can tell not a single woman has been the focus of a Very Short Introduction. All that reflects very poorly on the series editors.
posted by Kattullus at 3:53 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]


« Older from hell's heart, I STaB at thee   |   bump bump bump bump-bump-bump Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments