Reviewed by Richard Lofthouse

A crop of Very Important Books have been published right at the end of 2013, in time for Christmas one suspects — although not all intended for stockings.

At almost 5 kilograms and £250, the three volume History of Oxford University Press could be accommodated only by a mighty stocking. Yet the work is the product of ten years’ labour by fifty contributors, and completes the official history of the University that was previously published by OUP in 8 volumes. It is delightful as well as formidable.

There is abundant human detail, such as the jovially acknowledged staff requirement to show affection for University printer Frederick Hall’s (1864-1925) Irish wolfhound before asking for a pay rise. As expected, the volumes are rich with historical insight, such as the treatment in Volume 3 of the international expansion of the Press from the 1890s onwards, when the US office was swiftly followed by others, including four in India alone. 

Combined with the Oxford English Dictionary (1928 -), it is perfectly reasonable to argue that the rise of ‘Oxford’ to the status of a global super brand in our own time, owes very much to the spread of English, invariably learned with the OED at one’s side. The Press has never been acknowledged, let alone thanked for this contribution to globalisation, to say nothing of City tourism receipts. The central impression one gains from these volumes is the sheer size of OUP. It had its own fire brigade until 1989 and lost 45 men, all killed, to World War One, among the 350 enlisted. Think of it as a City State and this work as a necessarily long chronicle.

Mark Forsyth’s Elements of Eloquence is almost as brief as the OUP History is long, and could almost be gobbled in one long sitting. An Oxonian (Lincoln, 1996), Forsyth is memorably brilliant and terribly funny at the same time. He explains in 39 snappy chapters the central techniques of classical rhetoric – dead Greek words that we’ve all forgotten like polyptoton and anadiplosis, and others that we think we understand, such as synaesthesia and hyperbole. 

By showing and not just telling, each chapter is a hilarious instance of English language gymnastics. You’d think that a rare case of chiasmus implied, not stated, would be the death knell of any Christmas book. But it turns out to be Dorothy Parker’s reply to her anxious publisher chasing a deadline while she was on her honeymoon. She cabled back, “I’ve been too fucking busy, and vice versa.” The book is crammed with hilarity and you don’t want to put it down. Who could have guessed it?

The last two books to mention are the collected poems of Geoffrey Hill, the University’s Professor of Poetry and perhaps our greatest living poet, and a work of professional philosophy that may in fact save your Christmas - if you have a tendency towards melancholy brought on by festivities.

There is not very much that should be said about Hill’s poems, at least not here in a brief note: suffice to say that the editor, a professor at Brown University and the acknowledged custodian of Hill’s writings, has wisely stayed away from any attempt at exegesis, and so too Hill. There is no preface, or introduction, just a thousand pages of poetry.

And now for meaning. Meaning as part of a good life, meaning as part of a supernaturalist theory (i.e. religious in some broad or specific sense), meaning as part of a naturalist theory and finally the author’s own ‘Fundamentality Theory’. If this is already sounding a bit steep, the only thing to say is that when sipped at, like all good philosophy, every imbibing of Metz leaves a long, long aftertaste like a fine single malt, and that is itself meaningful (as, too, is the whisky, one hopes). 

Yes, it’s a work of professional philosophy; but yes too any lay (Oxonian?) person can make hay here. In between the Brussels sprouts and screaming kids, you too can secretly stash away futilitarianism and soul-centrism. It could save your Christmas—particularly if nativity scenes couldn’t mean less to you.  

The History of Oxford University Press, Vols I-III
edited by Ian Gadd, Simon Eliot, and Wm. Roger Louis
ISBN: 9780198702795

The Elements of Eloquence: How to turn the perfect English phrase
by Mark Forsyth
ISBN: 9781848316218
Icon Books

Geoffrey Hill: Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012
edited by Kenneth Haynes
ISBN: 9780199605897

Meaning in Life: An Analytic Study
by Thaddeus Metz
ISBN: 9780199599318

Image by Neil Kronberg under Creative Commons license.