What makes the Oxford Very Short Introductions series such a stunning success? With over eight million copies sold, they have been honoured by articles in the mainstream media: Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker devoted a not-so-short article in 2017 to the series and attempted to explain its success. Her article, at just over 5,000 words, is considerably more leisured than the Introductions themselves, which have a text length of around 35,000 words. The title of the article, How to be a Know-It-All, suggests, I think, where she has missed the point of the series.
Schulz quite correctly raises the question of the VSI success, given that they fit in the space so powerfully occupied by Wikipedia, that of “first finding out”. Crucially, however, Wikipedia exists only in online form, while non-fiction print series seem to have been a victim of the move to online. The most famous non-fiction list of all, Penguin’s vast series of Pelican books, first published in the 1930s, was closed by the publisher in 1984. Yet only eleven years later, Oxford had the confidence to start a series not dissimilar to Pelicans – and to make it work.
What is the secret of the VSI success? My suggestions are:
- They are authoritative, in a way that Wikipedia can never be. Each of them is written by someone with impressive-looking credentials in the topic.
- They are shorter than Pelicans – a typical Pelican title would be at least 200 pages, or 70,000+ words, so more likely double the length of the typical VSI, at around 35,000-40,000 words.
- They are not read for pleasure, but because you have to find out for your study, most typically. That explains why Literary Theory is the second best-selling title in the whole series. You need to find out about literary theory because your English course keeps mentioning it, and you haven’t got a clue what literary theory is.
What are Kathryn Schulz’s arguments for the success of the series?
- Ms Schulz claims the VSI titles are collections of facts. While there is indeed a market for such collections, VSI is not aimed at that market. Instead, it is aimed at providing some instant insight; more than what Wikipedia provides. Take any long article in Wikipedia and you rapidly get lost in the accumulation of detail, one of Wikipedia’s biggest faults.
- She concludes her article using a quote from a Stoppard play in praise of knowledge. The VSI series provides knowledge, and is in some sense “an omnibus of life” for “someone who loves knowledge qua knowledge”. I think this is completely wrong. Anyone interested in facts will look things up in Wikipedia. No, this is a very specific market: people who are convinced by the Oxford imprint as a guarantee of authority, and who are certainly not general readers. As she says herself, “Somewhat surprisingly, the books that sell best are those which tackle the most demanding subjects: The US Supreme Court outperforms Hollywood, and Aristotle outperforms Dinosaurs.” That’s exactly the point! A casual glance at the series leads her to look at the titles with novelty appeal, but for students, these books provide a support to their course, filling in those areas that are somewhat peripheral to the main topic.
- She mentions in passing that “some of these books are concise introductions to topics you might later wish to pursue in greater depth.”. On the contrary, I think you read a VSI precisely because you don’t want to study a topic in greater depth.
- Ms Schulz sees the VSI series in the long list of collections about facts, including Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Vincent of Beauvais, the usual suspects. I think this is fundamentally misguided. Today, we have an excess of factual information, but there remains a lack of understanding, of context. Wikipedia still fails to provide that context; the VSI series provides that context.
While Ms Schulz is, I think, missing the target when trying to explain the series’ success, she is more interesting in some of the points she makes.
- They can be compared to the For Dummies series, although the latter focuses in more “pragmatic topics” such as knitting or HTML. She doesn’t point out that the Dummies series have a vastly superior pedagogical presentation, but she does mention the gap between “Oxford and Indianapolis, where the Dummies guides are published” – a reference to that image of authority that Oxford has been trading on for the last seventy-five years or more (the first Oxford Companion, to English Literature, was published in 1932).
- She points out that VSIs have no hierarchy. They are simply an inventory of subjects, without much consistency: “You can read about Mountains and Deserts but not about Ecology”.
- There is a lack of coverage of sports, but I think this can be attributed to the humanities bias inherent in most University presses, and because the success of the series is as a support for academic studies. Not many people study football, American or British.
- Although the series includes some devoted to individuals, these were largely imported from an earlier Oxford series, the dreadfully titled “Past Master” series. I suspect that it is considerably easier to get a quick overview of a person than of a topic.
What she doesn’t question is the astonishing success of the series in print format. Print is supposed to have died as a publishing format, yet here is a series launched in the Internet era and thriving. I can only explain this by suggesting that the books are short and focused enough for students to buy them. I’d love to see the sales figures for print and digital formats of these books, but my guess is that the print continues to outsell the online version – which mystifies me. It contradicts what Joe Esposito envisaged back in 2012, that short books would be online only: “A short is going to have to be digital-only because there are no bricks-and-mortar venues to support its sale”. Doesn’t seem to be the case here.
I don’t think the series is successful as a general, disinterested, guide to knowledge. Ms Schulz, as a journalist, cannot comprehend the value of knowledge for its own sake. As an example, she mentions Diderot: “Does [knowledge] make us happy and virtuous, as Diderot hoped? Not on the evidence of Diderot himself, who suffered poverty and a prison sentence, was deserted by countless friends, and cheated rampantly on his wife.” That sentence alone is proof that knowledge of facts is not sufficient to provide genuine insight. Those “countless friends” included Rousseau, who probably wins the prize for falling out with his friends. I’d love to say that the VSI series was bought by people wanting to acquire knowledge for its own sake, but the reality is I think much more mundane. They are sold to help people pass exams. They have few pictures, they aren’t very inviting to look at or to read, but they will help you pass an exam. And I don’t think they have the slightest influence on the likelihood of your cheating on your partner.