Essential Reading| Oxford U Press's Very Short Introductions

Oxford University Press's wildly popular Very Short Introductions series

At the very end of last year I began a series of posts that I am titling “Essential Reading” in an attempt to help interested students and art/culture enthusiasts to build their personal art and visual cultural library, especially in core reference material. The series really came as an extension of a conversation I recently had with a colleague about those special books that are pulled off our shelves regularly for consultation and reflection—those books that we lend out and/or repurchase extra copies of if the first one goes missing.

One of the best little book shops on the planet
Some years ago when I was working on my doctorate, I attended a conference at Oxford University and made a much anticipated visit to the Oxford University Press Bookshop—an absolute must if you ever find yourself in the area. I recall now how bad the money exchange was and how I was quite distressed about both the cost of the books and the problem of transporting them for the rest of my trip. Still, I wanted to bring back something as a memento. As I was pondering my dilemma, I noticed a very professorial looking man (think white hair, brown suede jacket, beautifully aged leather satchel) at the cashier with a stack of small spined books with a distinctly Rothko-esque look to them and I became intrigued. Upon closer inspection, I first laid eyes on what would become one of my very favourite series of reference books—the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction Series

Note the Mark Rothko reference on the book design--
perhaps something significant to ponder for a future post... 
Seeing my interest, the cashier and I struck up a conversation about the series. She explained to me that the OUP had begun the series in 2000 as a way to produce and distribute academic-level essays on a range of topics that could serve as a dynamic introduction and engagement with the core ideas and discourse of particular topics. Experts are recruited for each individual book and asked to compose engaging and absorbing essays, often divided into a number of short chapters. What sets this series apart from other similar approaches by other publishers however is that the deceptively small size of the book delivers content that pushes non-specialist readers well beyond what would be labelled “introductory.” The subjects are treated as an evolving set of ideas and the authors often discuss how the topic areas have developed and influenced society in unexpected ways. Therein exists one of the fantastic ironies of both the series title and its handsomely designed packaging—it is far from superficial.

Since that first encounter at Oxford when I picked up Julian Stallabrass’s Contemporary ArtA Very Short Introduction —a book that I now routinely place on my reading lists as required reading—I have amassed a small collection of the books ranging from more familiar topics such as: Modernism, Art Theory, Art History, Dada, Modern Art, Postmodernism, and Poststructuralism. These are wonderfully written and very up to date accounts of the latest debates in my field, and I am proud to say I have either met or come to know a few of the book’s authors. I have also dabbled into other areas of interest such as:  Game Theory, Chaos, Quantum Theory, Consciousness and The History of Time. Each of the books provides a fantastic reference list at the back for further reading. The other strength of the series is with its individual philosopher publications. If you are struggling to understand the work of Foucault, Nietzsche, or Habermas, there is a book for you. And yes, I do admit they look very aesthetically pleasing on a book shelf-- that is just a nice bonus!