Saturday, July 11, 2009

Very Short Introductions

When Oxford University Press introduced its Very Short Introduction line a few years ago (Wikipedia says 1995) most of us expected just more of those little superficial overviews that nobody really needs. The surprise is that these are generally solid and imaginative little books that offer something even if you're familiar with the subject. I've read a couple of dozen and perhaps only Pat Aufderheide's Documentary Film is the kind of compressed study notes that the series seemed to promise - it's a decent enough book but if you know anything about the topic there's no reason to read it. (And special mention should be made for Norman Solomon's badly botched Judaism, one of those books you can feel pulling knowledge out of your head.)

But take Mary Beard & John Henderson's Classics which uses the temple at Bassae to explore various facets of classics: architecture, religion, the limits of what we know, archaeology, travel and even the debate about where antiquities belong. The authors realize that "very short" means not enough space for a usable overview and that the "introduction" is more important (and more interesting). Catriona Kelly's Russian Literature similarly uses Pushkin as an entry to various parts of her topic; the book is no quick history. Both of these benefit from a focus on how scholarship works and from the feel of actual authors rather than a deliberately anonymous textbook tone.

Of the two VSIs that I read recently Ian Shaw's Ancient Egypt is closest to that approach (though different books in the series use different methods). He starts with the Narmer Palette as a jumping off point but doesn't always stay focused. At times there's too much information about the Palette while key elements otherwise go unexplained. For instance, he just assumes we know about the chronological system but even after reading this book I have no idea what the Middle Kingdom was or why it deserved its own name, or even how the dynastic numbering worked. There's a little chart in the back but it's just names and numbers - imagine giving somebody several centuries from now (or most Americans at this moment) a list of British kings and what they might know of the differences between say Richard I and Charles I or the two Elizabeths. Still, the book is only meant to be a, well, very short introduction and it mostly works for that.

Nicholas Boyle's German Literature is perhaps too idiosyncratic. I get the impression that he really would have rather been writing a political history rather than about literature. He seems to see the latter as mainly the result of and a commentary on class struggles or at least philosophy but the vulgar Marxism is quaint (which is odd when he criticizes Brecht's more didactic works but then again who doesn't nowadays) and at least there's no post-structuralist jargon. Plus he could have used a stronger editor:
The subjection of women to male purposes became, perhaps unwittingly, the main theme and symbol in the poetry and drama of Friedrich Hebbel (1813-63), one of the last representatives of aesthetic idealism trying to give voice to the new spirit of social and material determinism, who was supported through his early struggle to write his way out of poverty by a mistress whom he discarded, and then by his wife, one of the foremost actresses in Vienna.

Whew. Boyle also is more interested in high art so while we get an overview of German lit it feels incomplete or even more incomplete than a very short introduction should be - if there are German equivalents for Defoe or Burroughs (either one) or Dr Johnson or Kipling we're left in the dark. And though that particular passage was chosen for effect much of the book has a bit of that hazy, quasi-philosophical tone. Not for Boyle discussions of actual artistic development or technique. He does briefly discuss why the novella was more prominent in Germany than elsewhere and the realist novel less so but otherwise there's not much sense of what the books might actually be like, at least not unless you can get anything from "he interpreted modern economic life as an extension of the total mobilization of wartime: he rightly saw that the extinction of the bourgeoisie and proletarianization of the middle classes, already far advanced in Germany, was destined to become universal, but he wrongly assumed that only a bureaucratic and military command structure could organize the resulting industrial society" (about Junger's The Worker). And of course he leaves out non-German writers, even considering how loose that concept is, so no Kafka or Walser or Trakl or Rilke or Handke. Actually I almost wish the book had been about Austrian & Swiss literature.