The Very Short Introduction Series is published by the Oxford University Press and consists of an ever-increasing number of pocket-sized (11mmx17mm) introductions to a range of philosophic, scientific, literary, political, theological, historical, sociological and other subjects. The main practical joy of the books is their size: they are absolutely ideal for carrying in a pocket and being read in a dentist’s waiting room, on public transport, while eating and so on. I now rarely leave the house without one, although on most occasions they go unread; they are ideal for those like me to whom hell is not other people (although it is sometimes that to!) but being bookless. The Sartrean reference is intended as one of the series I read in 2009 was on Existentialism – the other two were on Literary Theory and Foucault.
I have not discussed these before because it would be absurd to try to summarise what are already compressed and concise. I will say that all three I have read so far were excellent: intellectually challenging and stimulating but always clear and well-written. The authors (Jonathan Culler on Literary Theory, Thomas Flynn on Existentialism and Gary Gutting on Foucault) are all, as far as I can tell from the biographical information, well-respected experts in these particular fields. Each of the books inspired me to read further in the subjects – which is the only problem given the already impossible demands of my reading schedule. However I cannot recommend this series highly enough for anyone looking for a brief and up-to-date guide to some particular field of study.
My interest and attention were particularly caught by the book on Existentialism and I commenced my further studies by reading Sartre’s Nausea (1938). This for me proved something of a disappointment. I understand that Sartre’s belief that philosophical ideas could often be better demonstrated by works of imagination is exemplified here; I see that he does manage to convey very effectively the feeling of the central character’s realisation of the fact that ‘things-in-themselves’ are utterly indifferent to his human condition. But for me the book lacks – and this may of course always be in part a fault of translation – that transformative power which great fiction can provide. Too often the cntral character, Antoine Roquentin, comes over as merely depressed and misanthropic. The latter quality is emphasised by the bitter attack on humanism which he launches and which Sartre took from Nietzsche. This is the aspect of Existentialism which I cannot understand nor empathise with; it was also the part which Sartre modified in later life as his perceptions were modified above all by the War. I think that my continuing researches in this area will concentrate on his non-fiction; next in any case I am planning on reading a much-lauded new translation of de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.