But they also had something in common with a far older idea, dating back at least to Plato: the great chain of being, a grand interconnected hierarchy within which every part of the natural world has its allotted position. As interpreted by early monastics, the great chain of being began with God, below which came angels and other creatures of the spirit, followed by humans, followed by other animals, plants, and, at the base, rocks and minerals. Centuries of Christian scholars tinkered with this basic structure—adding royalty below God and above the rest of us, for instance, or subdividing angels so that seraphim trumped cherubim—until every imaginable entity had a place of its own.
It was intended to secularize as well as to popularize knowledge, and it demonstrated those Enlightenment commitments most radically through its organizational scheme. Like alphabetical order, which effectively democratizes topics by abolishing distinctions based on power and precedent in favor of subjecting them all to the same rule, this new structure had the effect of humbling even the most exalted subjects. It is not entirely clear where you would situate the Very Short Introductions if you were designing a great chain of reading.
They are something like textbooks—in that they provide a basic education on a single subject, are popular among and useful to students, and are largely written by professors—but also something like conventional nonfiction, in that they are meant to be read on their own, without lectures or problem sets. They are also something like the entries in an encyclopedia, since what they promise, above all else, is brevity and edification; for the same reason, they are something like CliffsNotes, which likewise offer a shortcut to knowledge.
Still, the two series share one basic and hopeful vision of humanity: that what someone can teach, anyone can learn. That is, of course, the dream of Diderot, filtered down across eras and borders. In twentieth-century France, it took the shape of the Que Sais-Je? By demonstrating that scholarly nonfiction could turn a profit, Pelican Books exerted an outsized influence on the publishing industry. In , that series ceased publication, and its extant titles were folded into a new O. I read a dozen or so cover to cover and started, skimmed, or skipped around in two dozen more—a practice that, in this case, feels less like reading on the cheap and more like browsing in a bookstore or shopping classes at the beginning of a college term.
A few of the introductions I sampled were disappointing. But those are exceptions. For the most part, the Very Short Introductions range from worth reading to wonderfully appealing. Plenty of less familiar names make welcome contributions, too. The most impressive introductions, though, are the ones that shine despite their lacklustre subjects. In fact, like many subjects in the series, his turns out to be surprisingly difficult to define.
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Mere lack of rainfall does not a desert make, since the real issue is not so much the absolute quantity of precipitation in an area in the form of rain, fog, snow, or dew as the ratio of that precipitation to the rate of evaporation. In south-central Egypt, for example, the annual rainfall averages between zero and five millimetres, but the annual evaporation rate can be as high as five metres. As Middleton explains, there are deserts in the middle of the ocean: marine regions that have an arid climate because so little freshwater falls into them.
Desert islands, it turns out, are surrounded by desert oceans. As that suggests, much of the pleasure to be found in the Very Short Introductions is the bedrock one of good nonfiction: facts. If you read enough of the Very Short Introductions in a row, some of these facts, gleaned from different books, collide with one another and do interesting things—coalesce, contradict, form big, thudding major chords or eerie minor ones.
But these encounters happen only in your mind; the series is not designed to put its subjects into any particular relationship. On the contrary: unlike Pliny and the Christian encyclopedists and, in his way, Diderot, the Very Short Introductions abandon taxonomy entirely. There is no hierarchy in them, no genealogy or chronology or organizing principle of any other kind. This is one reason, apart from the fun of it, that there are so many lists in this piece. Initially, what dazzles about the Very Short Introductions collection is its apparent diversity—World Music!
The Tudors! Animal Rights!
Forensic Psychology : a Very Short Introduction. (eBook, ) [bestnohicsuso.gq]
Some of these are likely to be remedied by the arrival of future volumes, since they are merely the consequence of carving up the world wherever the knife happens to fall. Other omissions, however, appear to be deliberate—for example, the somewhat comic failure of the series to cover athletics. Your odds of ever reading one on football or basketball or Nascar are not good, since only about twenty-five per cent of the introductions are commissioned in the United States, and a certain British bias persists in the choice of subjects.
When I spoke with the series editor, Nancy Toff, she had just completed an assignment—given to her by her U. But other gaps in the series are more entrenched, and more insidious. In fact, of the fifty-four individuals featured in the series all but a handful are white and none are women. The editors say that this is because the biographical introductions were grandfathered in from the Past Masters series, and that they rarely commission books on individual people anymore.
But that is a choice, not a law, and, whatever the logic behind it, it leads the series to implicitly endorse the same position as millennia worth of other omnibus projects: that the experiences and the contributions of women and people of color barely belong even in the vast inventory of everything worth knowing. Why is baseball important? Fuller Torrey. Jilted Generation. Ed Howker. Introduction to Forensic Psychology. Stacey L. Inside Kinship Care. David Pitcher. Psychology and Law. Andreas Kapardis.
Robert P. JJ Muggivan. Eric Newhouse. Family Crimes Against the Elderly.
Patricia J. James McGuire. Rhythm to Recovery.
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Simon Faulkner. Psychology and Policing. Cultural Competence in Forensic Mental Health.
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Wen-Shing Tseng. Criminal Behavior. James Hennessy. Global Perspectives on Dissociative Disorders. Vedat Sar. Communication in Investigative and Legal Contexts. Gavin Oxburgh. Richard N. Joel Harvey. Cranks Recipe Book. David Canter. Profiling in Policy and Practice. Biologising the Social Sciences. Principles of Geographical Offender Profiling.
Interviewing and Deception. Environmental Social Psychology. Jorge Correia Jesuino.
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