I am not a person who generally feels well-informed; for a year I called our Prime Minister Julia Jillard. So I’ve been reading a series of remedial primers, the Oxford Very Short Introductions. These offer “stimulating ways in to new topics”, note the precisiony Oxford charm in the division of the totally acceptable “into”.
I’ve been feeling that I squandered my best learning opportunity some years in to the past. When I finished school I enrolled in a freeform arts degree, but quickly dropped most subjects when I realised I liked the writing ones. In keeping with the spirit of the ‘learning opportunity’, the Oxford series is my version of the Grand Tour, ‘the traditional trip of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means’. My version is less sexy but also costs far less. Installments might be $11 if you buy second-hand, which works out to maybe ten cents a page.
Although some volumes present unorthodox insights in to their topics, most equate to your standard twelve-part Introduction-to-Something course. You get a feel for the field, a general coverage. Without making me anything like what you could call an expert, the books expose me in ways that are not incredibly taxing to backgrounds that are different from my own.
There are 323 titles in the series, and one of them is Dinosaurs. Already, though, the particular spine-feel nauseates me, as does the pages’ academic white. It’s like getting back from a holiday where you’ve eaten out all fortnight: all you really want is homemade soup. I’m entering a period that is about Australian women (partly your fault). Once again this is remedial and I cannot learn too soon, because my first go was Regeneration by Pat Barker. In a panicked conversation I defended the error by saying she is “at least an honorary Australian” (she is not).
My next mistake was the enthusiastic plunge into Brian Castro. Because his name sounds so muscular, and he has been around for ages, I thought he might be portentous and thick, but it turns out he’s a sneaky, fluid, funny/cruel writer. Then I read Thea Astley, and soon I’ll read Christina Stead, and I’ll go on like this until I am entirely sick of women, and become at least an honorary misogynist.
While I still have my credibility, I would like to conclude with a short list of facts and terms that I have underlined or circled in two of the Oxford books. Why not match the list against the photo to guess which? Meanjin will give away a year’s subscription for the first right guess [Editor’s note: No, we won’t].
Words and terms I’ve learned
A rebus (a transformational set of rules; an algorithm)
Epiphenomenon (a causal occurrence or functionally insignificant phenomenon; one that has no function as such)
Les jambes coupees (an expression used to describe one who is sexually exhausted)
“Associationism” asserts that memory is organised according to categorical similarities between objects, people, ideas, and so on, to every category of content.
Declarative and episodic memories refer to specific memories of personal and historic events, i.e. “I went to Boston last weekend”. Semantic memories involve general facts, i.e. “Boston is the capital of Massachusetts”. Procedural memories are what they sound like: “I know how to drive my car to Boston.”
Contrary to popular belief, there is almost no sex in advertising: “for supermarkets, for household cleansers, for medicines, for financial products? Hardly ever.” That’s because more than 40% of consumer spending is by people over 50.
Brand advertising rarely increases the size of a market or product sector if the market is large, long-established, static, and satisfies a basic need. In these cases, the aim of advertising is just to increase market share at competitors’ expense.
Ronnie Scott’s writing has appeared in The Believer, Heat, and The Big Issue, and he’s the comics and graphic novels critic on ABC Radio. He edits The Lifted Brow, an arts, culture, fiction magazine, and is also the editor of Strange Flowers: Australia-China Encounters in Writing and Art (Wakefield, 2011). Visit him at www.theliftedbrow.com or finefoods.tumblr.com.