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Arguably, Wikipedia is such a compilation; arguably, so is the Internet itself. That makes the popularity of this series all the more remarkable, especially right now, when truth is hotly contested and expertise is anathema. Yet, in a way, this popularity makes perfect sense. What better time than one in which nothing makes any sense to revive the ancient dream of knowing everything? It could reasonably be said of Pliny the Elder that he was killed, like a cat, by curiosity.
In August of 79 A. Bad move: he landed barely two miles from Pompeii, the eruption was that of Vesuvius, and within forty-eight hours the poisonous gases it spewed into the atmosphere had killed him. Pliny knew quite a lot about volcanoes—according to him, the ashes from Mt. Etna fell on towns as far as thirty-five miles away, while the hottest lava in the world flowed from a summit in Ethiopia—because he knew quite a lot about everything. See also Very Short Introduction No.
Pliny did not use the term, but Browne did. But more potent forces motivated these subsequent authors as well. Across cultures and eras, the two greatest powers behind the production and dissemination of knowledge—which is to say, its control—have been religious authorities and the state, and one or the other typically provided both the financial means and the ideological ends for compendium projects.
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In the premodern West, where civil authorities showed little interest in—and sometimes considerable antagonism toward—the broad dissemination of knowledge, most encyclopedists were monastic Christians. Unlike Pliny, who wrote for the benefit of his own reputation, plus possibly some praise from the emperor, these later authors bent to their impossible task with the aim of glorifying God.
For them, the natural world was a divine gift, analogous to the Bible; they studied creation in order to draw closer to the Creator. These works had something in common with narrower compendia produced under religious auspices, from medieval bestiaries to lives of the saints to Christian systematics themselves—attempts to organize all the themes, topics, and texts of Christianity into a single coherent work. But they also had something in common with a far older idea, dating back at least to Plato: the great chain of being, a grand interconnected hierarchy within which every part of the natural world has its allotted position.
As interpreted by early monastics, the great chain of being began with God, below which came angels and other creatures of the spirit, followed by humans, followed by other animals, plants, and, at the base, rocks and minerals.
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Centuries of Christian scholars tinkered with this basic structure—adding royalty below God and above the rest of us, for instance, or subdividing angels so that seraphim trumped cherubim—until every imaginable entity had a place of its own. It was intended to secularize as well as to popularize knowledge, and it demonstrated those Enlightenment commitments most radically through its organizational scheme.
Like alphabetical order, which effectively democratizes topics by abolishing distinctions based on power and precedent in favor of subjecting them all to the same rule, this new structure had the effect of humbling even the most exalted subjects.
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It is not entirely clear where you would situate the Very Short Introductions if you were designing a great chain of reading. They are something like textbooks—in that they provide a basic education on a single subject, are popular among and useful to students, and are largely written by professors—but also something like conventional nonfiction, in that they are meant to be read on their own, without lectures or problem sets. They are also something like the entries in an encyclopedia, since what they promise, above all else, is brevity and edification; for the same reason, they are something like CliffsNotes, which likewise offer a shortcut to knowledge.
Still, the two series share one basic and hopeful vision of humanity: that what someone can teach, anyone can learn. That is, of course, the dream of Diderot, filtered down across eras and borders. In twentieth-century France, it took the shape of the Que Sais-Je?
By demonstrating that scholarly nonfiction could turn a profit, Pelican Books exerted an outsized influence on the publishing industry. In , that series ceased publication, and its extant titles were folded into a new O. I read a dozen or so cover to cover and started, skimmed, or skipped around in two dozen more—a practice that, in this case, feels less like reading on the cheap and more like browsing in a bookstore or shopping classes at the beginning of a college term.
A few of the introductions I sampled were disappointing. But those are exceptions.
For the most part, the Very Short Introductions range from worth reading to wonderfully appealing. Plenty of less familiar names make welcome contributions, too. The most impressive introductions, though, are the ones that shine despite their lacklustre subjects.
Very Short Introductions
In fact, like many subjects in the series, his turns out to be surprisingly difficult to define. Mere lack of rainfall does not a desert make, since the real issue is not so much the absolute quantity of precipitation in an area in the form of rain, fog, snow, or dew as the ratio of that precipitation to the rate of evaporation. In south-central Egypt, for example, the annual rainfall averages between zero and five millimetres, but the annual evaporation rate can be as high as five metres. As Middleton explains, there are deserts in the middle of the ocean: marine regions that have an arid climate because so little freshwater falls into them.
Desert islands, it turns out, are surrounded by desert oceans.
As that suggests, much of the pleasure to be found in the Very Short Introductions is the bedrock one of good nonfiction: facts. If you read enough of the Very Short Introductions in a row, some of these facts, gleaned from different books, collide with one another and do interesting things—coalesce, contradict, form big, thudding major chords or eerie minor ones. But these encounters happen only in your mind; the series is not designed to put its subjects into any particular relationship.
On the contrary: unlike Pliny and the Christian encyclopedists and, in his way, Diderot, the Very Short Introductions abandon taxonomy entirely. There is no hierarchy in them, no genealogy or chronology or organizing principle of any other kind. This is one reason, apart from the fun of it, that there are so many lists in this piece. Initially, what dazzles about the Very Short Introductions collection is its apparent diversity—World Music! The Tudors! Animal Rights! Some of these are likely to be remedied by the arrival of future volumes, since they are merely the consequence of carving up the world wherever the knife happens to fall.
Other omissions, however, appear to be deliberate—for example, the somewhat comic failure of the series to cover athletics. Your odds of ever reading one on football or basketball or Nascar are not good, since only about twenty-five per cent of the introductions are commissioned in the United States, and a certain British bias persists in the choice of subjects.
When I spoke with the series editor, Nancy Toff, she had just completed an assignment—given to her by her U.
Kafka: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Ritchie Robertson - PDF Drive
But other gaps in the series are more entrenched, and more insidious. In fact, of the fifty-four individuals featured in the series all but a handful are white and none are women. The editors say that this is because the biographical introductions were grandfathered in from the Past Masters series, and that they rarely commission books on individual people anymore.
But that is a choice, not a law, and, whatever the logic behind it, it leads the series to implicitly endorse the same position as millennia worth of other omnibus projects: that the experiences and the contributions of women and people of color barely belong even in the vast inventory of everything worth knowing. Why is baseball important? For that matter, why is Russian Literature important? Why is the Silk Road important? Why—intellectually speaking, not as a practical matter—are Teeth important?
Put differently, what do we gain or hope to gain by reading books about all this stuff?