How to Be a Know-It-All

What you learn from the Very Short Introduction series.

October 16th 2017

By Kathryn Schulz

In addition to all of your other identities—urban, rural, Christian, atheist, African-American, first-generation, introverted, immunocompromised, cyclist, gun owner, gardener, middle child, whatever panoply of nouns and adjectives and allegiances describes you—you are also this: a gnathostome. A gnathostome is a creature with a jaw, a characteristic you share with all other human beings, plus macaques, zebras, great white sharks, minks, skinks, boa constrictors, and some sixty thousand other species.

Atheist /ˈeɪθi-ɪzəm/: the belief that God does not exist.

Compromise /ˈkɒmprəmaɪz/: an agreement that is achieved after everyone involved accepts less than what they wanted at first, or the act of making this agreement.

Panoply /ˈpænəpli/: a large number of people or things.

Allegiance /əˈliːdʒəns/: loyalty to a leader, country, belief etc.

I learned this fact about myself from one of the more unlikely books I lately committed to reading: “Teeth: A Very Short Introduction,” by Peter S. Ungar, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. Like its subject, “Teeth” is both a freestanding entity and part of a larger body: the Very Short Introduction series, a project of Oxford University Press. At present, that series consists of five hundred and twenty-six books; “Teeth” clocks in at No. 384. If you are so inclined, you can also read a Very Short Introduction to, among a great many other things, Rivers, Mountains, Metaphysics, the Mongols, Chaos, Cryptography, Forensic Psychology, Hinduism, Autism, Puritanism, Fascism, Free Will, Drugs, Nutrition, Crime Fiction, Madness, Malthus, Medical Ethics, Hieroglyphics, the Russian Revolution, the Reagan Revolution, Dinosaurs, Druids, Plague, Populism, and the Devil.

Anthropology /ˌænθrəˈpɒlədʒi/: the scientific study of people, their societies, cultures etc. 

Freestanding /ˌfriːˈstændɪŋ◂/: able to exist on its own and not as part of something bigger.

Inclined /ɪnˈklaɪnd/: sloping or learning in a particular direction.

Metaphysics /ˌmetəˈfɪzɪks/: the part of philosophy that is concerned with trying to understand and describe the nature of truth, life, and reality.

Cryptography /krɪpˈtɒɡrəfi/: the study of secrect writing and codes.

Hieroglyphics /ˌhaɪrəˈɡlɪfɪks/: pictures and symbols used to represent words or parts of words, especially in the ancient Egyptian writing system.

Plague /pleɪɡ/: a disease that causes death and spreads quickly to a large number of people.

Some of these books are concise introductions to topics you might later wish to pursue in greater depth: Modern India, say, or Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Others, like “Teeth,” contain pretty much everything the average layperson would ever want or need to know. All of them, however, take their Very Short commitment seriously. The length of each book is fixed at thirty-five thousand words, or roughly a hundred and twenty pages. (See Very Short Introduction No. 500, “Measurement.”) Never mind that the Roman Empire got some four thousand pages from Edward Gibbon, and that was just to chronicle its demise; here it gets the same space as Circadian Rhythms, Folk Music, and Fungi.

Concise /kənˈsaɪs/: short, with no unnecessary words.

Roughly /ˈrʌfli/: not exactly. about.

Chronicle /ˈkrɒnɪkəl/: to describe events in the order in which they happened.

Demise /dɪˈmaɪz/: when a property-owner rents property to someone, or the rented property itself.

In a clever marketing move, the Very Short Introductions advertise their brevity visually. They are small and trim, as if Steve Jobs had designed them, with covers that feature five hundred and twenty-six variations on the theme of horizontal swaths of color, like knockoff Rothkos or the wrappers on high-end chocolate bars. In common with the latter, they make for an appealing purchase, impulse or otherwise. Looking at them, it strikes you that, if you had to hop a flight from D.C. to Cleveland, you could be well on your way to mastering the basics of Microeconomics or Medieval Britain by the time you arrived.

Brevity /ˈbrevəti/: the quality of continuing for only a short time.

Trim /trɪm/: to make something look neater by cutting small pieces off it.

Swathe /sweɪð/: a long thin area of something, especially land.

Knockoff /ˈnɒkɒf/: a cheap copy of something expensive.

That feeling, or something like it—the yearning for mastery, or, more cynically, the yearning for the illusion of mastery—has helped make a basically nerdy series from a basically nerdy publishing house impressively popular. Since the Very Short Introductions were launched, in 1995, they have collectively sold eight million copies and been translated into forty-nine languages. Somewhat surprisingly, the books that sell best are those which tackle the most demanding topics: the U.S. Supreme Court outperforms Hollywood, and Aristotle outperforms Dinosaurs. True to that logic, for some years in a row the best-selling book in the series has been “Globalization.” The No. 2 spot currently belongs to “Literary Theory,” a title that I would have guessed languished near the bottom, somewhere in the vicinity of, say, “Enviromental Economics” and “Engels”.

Yearning /ˈjɜːnɪŋ/:  a strong desire for something.

Cynical /ˈsɪnɪkəl/: unwilling to believe that people have good, honest, or sincere reasons for doing something.

Outperform /ˌaʊtpəˈfɔːm/: to be more successful than someone or something else.

As the Oxford project has grown in popularity, it has also increased considerably in size. There is no Very Short Introduction to the Universe—although you can read about Earth, Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and Infinity—but there will almost certainly be one eventually, because, like the universe itself, the series is still expanding. Roughly fifty new titles are published every year; all told, the in-house list of topics to be covered currently runs to one thousand two hundred and fifteen. Nor will matters end there. In fact, matters will not end anywhere. According to Nancy Toff, the American editor of the series, its intended scope is basically limitless.

In that sense, the Very Short Introductions have a very long history. Ever since people began writing things down, we have intermittently attempted to write everything down: the nature of the earth and the cosmos, all of prehistory and recorded time, and the political arrangements, cultural productions, and collective wisdom of humankind. For at least the past few centuries, pundits have routinely popped up to lament the ostensible death of that dream, invariably at the hands of increased specialization and an explosion in the available information. That lament was always absurd, not because the dream didn’t die but because it never lived. There has never been a golden era in which our collective knowledge was so modest that it could be compiled in one place—and, if such an era had existed, one wonders exactly how golden it would have been.

Intermittent /ˌɪntəˈmɪtənt◂/: stopping and starting often and for short periods.

Cosmos /ˈkɒzmɒs/: the whole universe, especially when you think of it as a system.

Pundit /ˈpʌndɪt/: someone who is often asked to give their opinion publicly of a situation or subject.

Lament /ləˈment/: to express feelings of great sadness about something.

Ostensible /ɒˈstensəbəl/: seeming to be the reason for or the purpose of something, but usually hiding the real reason or purpose.

In our own time, though, a curious thing has happened. Thanks to technological advances, our ability to store information has just about caught up to our ability to produce it, putting the dream of an omnibus compilation of knowledge in reach for the first time in history. Arguably, Wikipedia is such a compilation; arguably, so is the Internet itself. At all events, the world’s knowledge is better documented and more accessible today than it has ever been; you probably carry it with you in your pocket everywhere you go. In that context, the Very Short Introduction series is something like atop-of-the-line Canon camera: it’s wonderful, but most people will still just use their phone.

Omnibus /ˈɒmnɪbəs/: a radio or television programme consisting of several programmes that have previously been broadcast separately.

That makes the popularity of this series all the more remarkable, especially right now, when truth is hotly contested and expertise is anathema. Yet, in a way, this popularity makes perfect sense. Although no one would describe “Isotopes: A Very Short Introduction” as pleasure reading, it’s a profound relief, these days, to press our collective feverish forehead against the cold steel of actual information. What better time than one in which nothing makes any sense to revive the ancient dream of knowing everything?

Anathema /əˈnæθəmə/: something that is completely the opposite of what you believe in.

Revive /rɪˈvaɪv/: to bring something back after it has not been used or has not existed for a period of time

It could reasonably be said of Pliny the Elder that he was killed, like a cat, by curiosity. In August of 79 A.D., while commanding a fleet in the Bay of Naples, the Roman statesman and author witnessed a volcano erupting nearby and went ashore to get a closer look. Bad move: he landed barely two miles from Pompeii, the eruption was that of Vesuvius, and within forty-eight hours the poisonous gases it spewed into the atmosphere had killed him.

Spew /spjuː/: to flow out of something quickly in large quantities, or to make something flow out in this way.

Pliny knew quite a lot about volcanoes—according to him, the ashes from Mt. Etna fell on towns as far as thirty-five miles away, while the hottest lava in the world flowed from a summit in Ethiopia—because he knew quite a lot about everything. At the time of his death, he had been completing the final revisions on his ten-volume “Natural History,” whose subject he defined as, in a word, “life.” To that immodest objective, he added an equally immodest claim. “There is not one person to be found among us who has made the same venture,” he wrote in his preface, “nor yet one among the Greeks who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject.”

Immodest /ɪˈmɒdɪst/: having a very high opinion of yourself and your abilities, and not embarrassed about telling people how clever you are.

About that much, at least, Pliny was probably right: “Natural History” is one of the earliest-known efforts to record all available human knowledge in a single work. It begins with the appropriately expansive question of whether the universe is finite or infinite, then goes on to address, among other subjects, planets, eclipses, elements, the distance between stars, the antipodes (“Do they exist?”), geography, botany, agriculture, horticulture, mineralogy, mining, medicine, the uses of papyrus, counterfeit coins, the character of various Roman eminences, and famed artists and writers past as well as contemporaneous.

Eclipse /ɪˈklɪps/: an occasion when the Sun or the Moon cannot be seen, because the Earth is passing directly between the Moon and the Sun, or because the Moon is passing directly between the Earth and the Sun.

Horticulture /ˈhɔːtəˌkʌltʃə/: the practice or science of growing flowers, fruit, and vegetables.

Papyrus /pəˈpaɪrəs/: a plant like grass that grows in water.

Counterfeit /ˈkaʊntəfɪt/: made to look exactly like something else, in order to deceive people.

The resulting work is endlessly fascinating and extremely fun to read, but its merits come skidding to a stop at the question of accuracy: by any standards, not just modern ones, vast swaths of “Natural History” are utter bunk. Peter Ungar would be dismayed by Pliny’s “investigation as to teeth,” which includes the assertions—odd in part because they are so easily disproved—that men have more teeth than women, and that “human teeth contain a kind of poison, for they dim the brightness of a mirror when bared in front of it and also kill the fledglings of pigeons.” Yet those and countless other blatant falsehoods did nothing to undermine the book’s popularity; if the best-seller list weren’t such a recent phenomenon, “Natural History” would have dominated it for some sixteen centuries. As late as 1646, the British philosopher Sir Thomas Browne could still complain, “There is scarce a popular error passant in our days, which is not either directly expressed or deductively contained in this work; which, being in the hands of most men, hath proved a powerful occasion of their propagation.”

Dismayed /dɪsˈmeɪd/: worried, disappointed, and upset when something unpleasant happens.

Deductively /dɪˈdʌktɪv/: using the knowledge and information you have in order to understand or form an opinion about something.

Browne wrote those words in his own omnibus project, “Enquiries Into Very Many Received Tenets, and Commonly Presumed Truths,” generally known as “Vulgar Errors”—a kind of inverted encyclopedia, which sought (past tense: seek) to establish the world’s truths by chronicling its falsehoods. What Browne failed to mention was that he was insulting his intellectual progenitor; with “Natural History,” Pliny had essentially invented the genre of the encyclopedia. For the next thousand years, nearly every attempt at an encyclopedic work, at least in the Western world, was written by someone who had read Pliny and found him to be either inspiring or wanting.

Omnibus /ˈɒmnɪbəs/: a radio or television programme consisting of several programmes that have previously been broadcast separately.

Encyclopedia /ɪnˌsaɪkləˈpiːdiə/: a book or CD, or a set of these, containing facts about many different subjects, or containing detailed facts about one subject.

Chronicle /ˈkrɒnɪkəl/: a written record of a series of events, especially historical events, written in the order in which they happened.

Falsehood /ˈfɔːlshʊd/: the state of not being true.

Progenitor /prəʊˈdʒenɪtə/: someone who first thought of an idea.

Attempt /əˈtempt/: an act of trying to do something, especially something difficult.