Very short book reviews

I wrote a trial essay on Tuesday and I am transcribing it at the moment. Posting it on the blog will be a massive act of personal bravery as re-reading this is painful to me. I remind myself that this is the entire point of the exercise and that this test format is not my strong suit. Only practice, and tedious self-analysis, will make perfect.

In the meantime, enjoy — or tolerate — two short book reviews!

I have a few titles from Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series. Few means 40 at last count. These are very short, they rarely number more than 100 to 120 pages, and they are about the same size as the old black-spine Penguin Classics. This series is easily recognized by their abstract covers painted by Phillip Atkins.

Some of the titles in the series are adapted from older editions produced by Oxford. #1 in the series, Classics by Beard and Henderson, first appeared in 1995 as an Oxford University Press paperback. #60, Shakespeare, by Greer, came out in 1986. More recent titles have been commissioned for the series by Oxford and include #196, Statistics (D.J. Hand, 2008) and #299, Magic (O. Davies, 2012).

They are also very affordable. Most run about $10 to $12 Canadian and they are often discounted on-line. I have picked up about 20 of mine second-hand for around $6-7 each.

But are they any good?

I think it’s safe to say that this genre is a real challenge for any writer who knows their special field. Oxford targets this series at the general reader, and undergraduate student but I often feel like the authors themselves are writing, not for that larger audience, but for the much smaller and more influential audience of instructors who may want to use one of these introductions as a class text. The result is (usually) something that is readable, and approachable, but detailed and nuanced enough to appeal to the advanced reader who likely knows as much as the original author.


Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory (1997 / 2000, #4 in the series) is a good example of this split personality. Culler has a daunting task, to distill the murky waters of literary criticism into something that makes sense to the average reader without resorting to heavy use of theoretical jargon. Literary criticism is a field that has so many isolated and often hostile camps that casual contact with it sounds like an anthropological description of some violent island hegemony. Culler avoids the theoretical schools and goes straight to a pair of case-studies of literary theory as a means of introduction. Stripped of the framework of schools and methodological approaches, Culler can show how literary theory operates as a means of understanding — or trying to understand — texts.

In the very first pages we get a summary of Foucault and Derrida, heavyweights in literary theory, and we get that introduction without all the impedimenta of theoretical terminology. That controlled language of theory comes later. It’s a clever performance for Culler, introducing the products of literary theory before showing the unpleasant gears and grinders that are involved in the process. Culler also manages to keep an ever present sense of cautious uncertainty about the whole exercise of literary theory without sounding incredulous about the whole thing.

I’ve read some literary theory, in its raw forms and in the more distilled introductions, but I felt like Culler was writing about some other activity related to literary things and theory things, which he managed by circumventing the traditional approach through those special schools and disciplines.


David Miller’s Political Philosophy (2003, #97) has an equally difficult task but with the added hurdle that he must try and maintain some kind of philosophical objectivity. It is difficult to discuss political concepts without making value judgments and although Miller does come out, fairly early, as a general advocate of democracy (democracy in a fairly abstract form) he is careful to maintain a critical position in regards to all manifestations of organized political activity.

I appreciate that Miller never ignores the harder questions within political philosophy, the questions that no current, or past, political philosophy has managed to cleanly answer. What are the limits of individual rights? How can democracies properly represent the electorate? What are the limits of social justice? Miller avoids the easy answers that favour capitalist democracy, or state-run socialism, or libertarian free-markets, or any other combination taken from current political discourse. Miller simply explains the concepts that shape the discourse of political philosophy and how that relates, in reality, to the ongoing issues of representative governance.

Granted, Miller avoids any radical commentary on current political issues, and although this makes the book feel rather conventional and simplistic it’s necessary in order to avoid bald value judgements. This is essential if one wants to produce an introduction, not a polemic, or some other product of political philosophy.

One more reason I like these little books is that they are a fairly quick read. I’m a very slow reader and I enjoy the profound sense of accomplishment when I finish one of these little books. That’s good because I have 38 more to read. That’s if I don’t get anymore. That’s very unlikely.


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