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February 20, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright February 20, 2008. Used by permission.


If I rode the subway to and from work, I’d be seriously addicted by now to the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introductions” series in which Rana Mitter’s next book is about to appear (it’s due out late in February in Britain, soon after that in the U.S.). This is because these slim volumes seem custom-made to be read over the course of a day-or-two’s worth of hour-there and hour-back train rides.

The best way to sum up the series is that it’s made up of little books on big topics. They are all short (100 to 150 pages of text). They all have the same subtitle—as in Architecture: A Very Short Introduction (a work I’ve come to rely on in my research on Shanghai, whenever I’m trying to keep straight which treaty-port era landmarks should be called “neo-classical,” which “art deco”) and Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (a book I wrote about for Newsweek International–fittingly enough, given the brevity of the book, in a mini-review that was only about 100 words long). And each VSI (easy to remember, rhymes with CSI: I’m not sure whether the publisher or the TV producers got there first with the abbreviation) is issued in the same attractive, shrunk-down format. They are just the right size to slip into the back pocket of your jeans. Unfortunately in one sense (but fortunately for my health and the health of my research account, lest I be tempted to squander too much of it on VSIs), I generally get to and from work by bike, so consuming them en route isn’t an option (though I suppose if they came as podcasts…).

Having grown fond of the series and liking Mitter’s earlier books, The Manchurian Myth and A Bitter Revolution, I was eager to get my hands on an advance copy ofModern China, but then found myself feeling a bit anxious about reading it once it arrived. After all, it seemed possible (maybe even probable) that I’d come away disappointed, less enamored of the series than I had been. I wondered if I would feel, after reading Mitter’s latest, that the VSI were fine when dealing with subjects one knew little about (the case, for me, with architecture) or had just a passing knowledge of (the case, for me, with globalization a few years ago), but not when they were right up your alley. As it turned out, though, I needn’t have worried.