In Short: Big Ideas Made Pocket-Sized

As a reference librarian, I'm often asked to recommend the quintessential book on a topic I don't know much about, a book that gives the general reader the broad outlines of a field in a compact, accessible format. Somewhere between a Wikipedia article and a shelf full of specialized tomes is the elusive "just right" kind of book.

Oxford University Press identified this need and launched a wonderful series called Very Short Introductions (VSI). Andrea Keegan, the series editor, told The Bookseller: "The books are not primers or surveys, but sophisticated 'takes' on a topic, and we allow the authors to express a point of view, while giving readers a really good way into a subject they may never have encountered before." Noted authorities in each field are commissioned to write an overview of no more than 200 pages.

The first few titles treated big themes and theorists in philosophy, religion, and other abstract disciplines. Since then, VSI has broadened its scope to cover science, history, the arts, and much more, and there are over 300 titles in print. These charming little books are easy to find in the library catalog. Just search for "very short introduction" to see them all or add a word or name to discover what we have in areas you're curious about. Here's a sampling of Very Short Introductions in our collections. (The subtitle VSI is omitted from the listings.)

Classics / Mary Beard and John Henderson

Philosophy / Edward Craig

The Meaning of Life / Terry Eagleton

The Cell / Terrence D. Allen

The Laws of Thermodynamics / P. W. Atkins

Global Warming / Mark Maslin

Architecture / Andrew Ballantyne

Contemporary Art / Julian Stallabrass

World Music / Philip Vilas Bohlman

Another frequent challenge for many of us is tracing the evolution of a concept in philosophy, religion, or science. What did Plato have to say about justice, for example? How about St. Thomas Aquinas or Descartes on the idea of the soul? What was Marx or Freud's view of free will? The five-volume reference set called The Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas  enables the reader to navigate the currents of Western thought, concept by concept. It provides detailed citations to primary sources and suggests further readings. Luckily the entire text of the set (originally published in 1973) is available in searchable digital form, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, thanks to the University of Virginia.

Of course, if you visit the Reference Services Department on the third floor of the Central Library, you may browse The Dictionary of the History of Ideas or any of thousands of other carefully selected reference books. We librarians are happy to help you in person, by phone, by e-mail, and in our chat service, Ask Us. We'll help you cut those big ideas down to size.

Written by Joe Cahn on August 19, 2013


Laurie. on August 19, 2013


How timely! I just spied a new 2013 VSI title on the book cart today, Mao by Delia Davin.

james on August 19, 2013


Joe, I didn't know about these. I'll have to check some of them out. Thanks so much!

FrankW on August 19, 2013


I didn't know about these either and I think they're terrific. I love how they've come up with the really beautiful book covers too. Thanks Joe!

Anonymous on August 19, 2013


It's so useful to learn about these. I didn't know about them either. And I can't believe the searchable History of Ideas. Phenomenal.

Sandy J on August 21, 2013


Exciting...learning is wonderful, these books open doors to realms I haven't considered in a long time.

CathyJ on August 22, 2013


I'm also a fan of the VSI series and have been grateful for its existence over the years -- existentialism, modern art, Barthes, and on and on. I think those pretty covers are designed to soothe readers' fears of taking on new and confounding subjects. Thanks for the post, Joe!

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