Monday, 10 November 2008

Very Short Introductions

Since coming to Korea, I have become more familiar with a series by Oxford University Press: A Very Short Introduction. These pocket-sized academic texts function almost as first or second year university mini-courses on the given subject. At their best, they are useful both for the neophyte to the subject as well as academics themselves. And they can be invaluable for teaching purposes. My first encounter with the series was when I was preparing to teach an introduction to film theory course a couple of summers ago. I wanted a reading that would help explain post-structuralist theory and happened upon the Very Short Introduction by Catherine Belsey. I was familiar with Belsey, who is a literature scholar, from her excellent book CRITICAL PRACTICE, a chapter of which I read as an undergraduate. Although it was not a film theory book, Belsey's discussion of post-structuralist theory provided a great grounding in the major theorists (Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, etc) who have dominated Film Studies as a discipline. Belsey's accessible style gave the students a much needed grasp of the theoretical concepts (she quite brilliantly begins the book with a discussion of Alice in Wonderland).

Since then, I have read the following titles in the series:

4: Jonathan Culler, LITERARY THEORY
56: Jonathan Culler, BARTHES
73: Catherine Belsey, POSTSTRUCTURALISM
77: Kevin Passmore, FASCISM
79: Julia Annas, PLATO
148: Jerry Brotton, THE RENAISSANCE
150: Christopher Kelly, THE ROMAN EMPIRE
152: Tom Burns, PSYCHIATRY
153: Thomas R. Flynn, EXISTENTIALISM
159: Leonard Smith, CHAOS
161: Ali Rattansi, RACISM
163: Andrew Clapham, HUMAN RIGHTS
173: Ken Binmore, GAME THEORY
187: Veronique Mottier, SEXUALITY

Like the Criterion Collection, there is a numbering here that adds a collectibility aspect. And at less than 10,000 won a book, they are considerably cheaper than Criterion DVDs and make for very convenient subway and bus reading. In addition to Belsey, I would highly recommend the two studies by Jonathan Culler, LITERARY THEORY and BARTHES. My two other favorites are Simon Critchley's CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY and especially Ali Rattansi's RACISM, which should be required reading for everyone on the planet. I'm hoping to continue to add more titles to my reading list in the coming months. Currently, the Kyobo bookstore in Gwanghwamun has numerous titles for sale, all under 10,000 won. And, of course, all of the titles (I believe) should be available on-line.


girish said...

Marc, I like this series a lot too.

In addition to the Culler and Belsey volumes (which I love), I would also strongly recommend: DADA & SURREALISM by David Hopkins; FOUCAULT by Gary Gutting; and NIETZSCHE by Michael Tanner.

A caveat: Cynthia Freeland's volume on ART THEORY is excellent but has already been published by Oxford with a different title and design: BUT IS IT ART? I found out the hard way by buying it twice--the perils of online ordering!

Still, it's a terrific volume, and worth buying (once).

Marc Raymond said...

Girish, thanks for the recommendations, I'll put them at the top of my list. And yes, there are a few volumes in the series that had been previous published. Culler on Barthes is one (even though there is a new final chapter), and I'm sure there are others as well besides the Freeland, especially in the earlier volumes.

Gareth said...

Thanks for the pointer in the direction of these introductions; I found myself needing a quick, straightforward, refresher on Foucault this week and purchased that volume. I can second Girish's recommendation: it's excellent, exactly what I needed without being dumbed down.