Books, Travel + OUP's "Very Short Introduction"s

Good Morning and Happy Monday!

This week's first post is about going away and getting inspired.

Science Books and Inspiration (Photocollage by V.L.Welch)

My recent British trip was primarily about seeing new places (more accurately, seeing old places again), seeing friends, stocking up on all the things I cannot get hold of whilst living overseas, as well as visiting various favourite shops and specialist emporia that I like . Because of the truly dire state of my local postal service, getting physical books delivered is very difficult and this means that I rely heavily on digital versions. That said, they are often a poor substitute for their paper cousins. So this means that, for me, the second wave of inspiration from any trip abroad these days comes from the books I bring back.

In particular, I am currently really enjoying Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introduction" series. The authors are all selected as experts in their field- so styles vary a little between the huge number of books in the series, even if the format and overall structure of each book is very similar. The latter, is undoubtedly a significant tribute to the OUP's editorial staff.

[One (off- topic) title I am particularly enjoying is Paul Boyer's "American History"- it's a real gem, actually. It is astonishingly hard to find dispassionate or disinterested (sic) histories of the USA. Not only does Boyer's history deliver on both of these scores- in spades- but its tone is great and the pacing is good. No small feat for such a large topic. The book comes without the off-putting and relentless jingoism that mars a great number of otherwise reliable US histories, which definitely makes it easier to read. There is even an eplanation of the culture and origin of the idea of "American Exceptionalism", which is something I have not seen explained as well elsewhere.]

Other (on-topic) volumes that I am working through in the "Very Short Introduction" series are "The Periodic Table" by Eric Sceri, "Fungi" by Nicholas P. Money and "Qunatum Theory" by John Polkinghorne. A quick flick through the Very Short introduction to "The Periodic Table" made it seem much more appealing than the Very Short Introduction to "The Elements" volume in the same series and, so far, it has been an interesting read. Meanwhile, Nicholas Money's "Very Short Introduction to Fungi" just brims with passion for its subject. I read once that the perfect candidate for any professional job interview is one who exudes "cool professionalism, with sparkle". Nicholas Money's book on Fungi is the paper version of that ideal.

Now, one of the things that strikes me about the whole "Very Short Introduction" series is just how rapidly it is expanding- each book has a list of other titles in the series and each volume seems to have more titles in this printed list than the last one did. Then you look at the list of available titles online and on Amazon- and that list is longer still than those printed inside any of the books that I have seen. So, it is a huge and seemingly fast-expanding series.

"Botanicum"by Kathy Willis and Katie Scott makes excellent bedside reading.

The other thing about the series is that it is somewhat reminiscent of Penguin's "Great Journeys" series- a set of 20, 100-odd-page volumes of the best travel writing throughout history: from Mas' Udi & Herodotus to Ryszard Kapuściński. I really like books written to that sort of length- 100 pages is enough but not too much. In the case of the Penguin "Great Journeys" series, the books are edited extracts from much longer works or compiled from collections of letters (for example in the cases of the fabulous volumes by Lady Mary Whortley Montagu and by Anton Chekhov).

Anyway, the Very Short Introductions series should have been the limit of my book-buying activities, but, having raided the big flagship Waterstones bookshop in London's Piccadily and then plundered the famous "Norrington Room" of Blackwells' bookshop in Oxford (the big, "Broad Street" branch), I ended up in "Forbidden Planet" and various other purveyors of printed items. Eventually, I left for a quiet half-day in Oxford University's Botanic Gardens ....the problem was that the gift shop/ ticket office there was also stocked with some rather appealing books....

The finest of these is a gloriously anachronistic little volume called "Botanicum" by Kathy Willis (author) and Katie Scott (illustrator). The copy I have is small (between about A5 and A6- nearer to A5 than A6) and light and, as a consciece, lavishly illustrated, "gentle" book it makes wonderful bedtime reading. The larger A4 version is easier to find online.

As someone who is absolutely swamped with reading- magazine work, articles, journal papers and technical books- it is really nice to have a few familiar books that can be enjoyed for their aesthetic appeal, more than for the ideas they contain. Botanicum fills that niche very nicely.

- Victoria. 


  1. As someone who habitually bring an extra, empty suitcase on trips for the purpose of filling it up with books, I approve of this post :) I think there should be a name for people like us- the Mile Long Club perhaps?

  2. How do you get time to read all this? A full day at work and I'm spent. I might read a short article or something, but this kind of dense book is too hard. 'specially after a long week of paperwork.


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