Magazine article History Today

A Fairly Short Introduction to 'Very Short Introductions'

Magazine article History Today

A Fairly Short Introduction to 'Very Short Introductions'

Article excerpt

Far from being a novelty of our own 'dumbed down' era, the 'very short introduction' by which academics open up a big topic in a small compass for general readers has a long history of its own. As Leslie Howsam has shown in a recent history of history publishing, Post into Print (British Library, 2009), academics and general readers in fact emerged at about the same time--the mid- to late-19th century--when the professionalisation of the university and the advent of universal education coincided. Academics were from the beginning keen to meet the general reader--to enlighten them and to make some money from them. Publishers like Macmillan and Longman spewed out 'Handbooks "Epochs" Short Books on Great Writers' in huge numbers from the 1870s. The university presses at Oxford and Cambridge took a while to wake up to the potential, but they were soon signing up their own dons to paddle in the same waters.

A new frontier within this genre did, however, open up in 1970 when Fontana launched its 'Modern Masters' series, edited by the literary critic Frank Kermode. Distinguished by their arresting abstract covers, by Kermode's appetite for critical theory and by some celebrity authors (including Stephen Spender on T.S. Eliot and AJ. Ayer on Bertrand Russell), the Modern Masters raised the bar for what came to be known as the 'bluffer's guide'(and in fact the first books calling themselves 'Bluffer's Guides' were published shortly thereafter). The historian Keith Thomas launched Oxford's 'Past Masters' series, an explicit homage to the Fontana series but extending its purview across the ages, in 1980. Then, in the early 1990s, OUP's George Miller had the brilliant idea of launching a series of mini primers that spanned the full spectrum of subjects. The spectacularly successful 'Very Short Introduction' series was born. Though not explicitly inspired by 'Past Masters', the VSI series incorporated its predecessor, giving it a critical mass of titles to start with as it began its long march across the disciplines. It had bold abstract covers, a distinctively miniaturised format and modern design and numbered volumes that cultivated collectability. In a little more than a decade, 200 titles have been issued, selling over three million copies.

Reflecting the tastes of the general readership for serious non-fiction, VSI continues to showcase history- 33 titles so far- though philosophy and religion also feature strongly and business and science are the new growth areas. The range of subjects within history, geographically, chronologically and topically, is sprawling. OUP is conscious, of course, of the biases of the general readership--bestselling titles include Ancient Warfare, The Crusades, The First World War, The Spanish Civil War, The Cold War (spot the connection). But it is ago catering to a student market--which perhaps accounts for the success of VSIs to the Renaissance and the French Revolution--and seeking to broaden horizons as well--recent volumes include Modern Japan and African History and, more predictably, Modern China, timed to coincide with the Beijing Olympics.

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Having selected its authors carefully to ensure that they understand the brief and possess the communication skills, OUP seems to leave them alone to chart their own course. The range of solutions to the conundrum, how do you pour a gallon into a pint pot? …

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