‘The Sense of Style': Steven Pinker, appearing at the Sheldonian Theatre on Tuesday 23rd September at 7pm

One of the most scintillating author events with which I have ever been involved was when we played host to Steven Pinker at the Sheldonian Theatre. On that occasion, he spoke about his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which still rates for me personally as the greatest work of non-fiction I have ever read. In that book, Steven Pinker suggests that humanity is becoming less rather than more violent. That argument is then supported by an astonishing 500 pages of history, anthropology and sociology and what is more, those 500 pages do not forget to be, in parts, appealingly anecdotal and yes, even amusing.

senseofstyle4offPinker’s new book, ‘The Sense of Style’, is a scientific look at crafting graceful and articulate prose. Determined not to bemoan the degradation of modern standards, and even more determined to express how important it is to add beauty to the world, what Steven Pinker is doing here is writing a style manual of an elevated kind, one which is thoughtful and inspiring and which anatomises language with a steady precision. As you would expect, Steven Pinker gives examples along the way, citing snippets of what he considers to be both good and bad writing. Pinker’s own writing is undeniably elegant, which of course helps to reinforce the entire raft of arguments he expounds through each chapter.

Explaining how the human mind works and relates to language is of course key to a good deal of this – and we can be in the hands of no more qualified an expert that Professor Pinker in that regard. I could expand on this point, but that would necessitate turning a pithy blog piece into a much more substantial review, so I will leave you to read his book instead!

Some of his contentions and observations bring to mind, tangentially, something that the novelist David Mitchell was saying just this week when asked about his writing style – he talked about the look of the words on the page and the fact that the eye is like the blind person’s finger reading braille on the page (he talked about how ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ mean the same thing, but we instinctively know when to use one and when to use the other. He also talked about ‘perhaps’ being spikier-looking on the page, whereas ‘maybe’ is smoother).

I am looking forward a very great deal to hearing Steven Pinker speak and to meet the great man once again, and if you haven’t obtained your tickets already, I exhort you to come along to what is bound to be a mind-expanding and life-improving event – and quite probably a little mischievous as well.

Zool Verjee, 12th September 2014
Steven Pinker appears at the Sheldonian Theatre on Tuesday 23rd September at 7pm, tickets cost £6 and are available by calling 01865 333623 or emailing events.oxford@blackwell.co.uk (if you wish to sign up to our events mailing list simply request this in the email)

Our full events schedule, including the likes of Marilynne Roninson, Deborah Levy and Michael Morpurgo can be found here

The Scottish Referendum – A Rare Perspective

With just a fortnight to go until Scotland’s historic referendum, many people are preparing to answer the question ‘Should Scotland become an independent country?’ Let’s consider some historical context.

Exactly four hundred and ten years ago, the London publisher Edward Blount published an essay entitled ‘The Miraculous and Happie Union of England and Scotland, by how admirable meanes it is effected; how profitable to both Nations, and how free of any inconuenience either past, present, or to be discerned’. It is now a scarce book, with perhaps a dozen copies in major UK libraries and another handful outside the UK, according to the English Short Title Catalogue. We have a copy for sale, and you can see the listing on the Blackwell’s Rare Books website.

The author, Sir William Cornwallis the Younger (c.1579-1614), was knighted for his service in the Irish campaign of 1599 and then spent the early years of the 17th century writing essays, becoming one of the first practitioners of the form in English. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him, he ‘vies, with Sir Francis Bacon, for the distinction of being the first familiar essayist in English and, with his friend John Donne, for that of being the first English paradoxical essayist. In each case it is impossible to tell who wrote first.’

In response to the Union of Crowns that accompanied the accession of James VI, King of Scots, to the English throne as James I in 1603, Cornwallis wrote this essay. His major theme is how natural and appropriate the union is, given the equal claim England and Scotland have for the affection and attention of their joint monarch. But his arguments may well still have relevance today, to both sides of the debate.

“Could independent Scotland’s economy survive? ‘They have a Countrey of their owne that yeeldeth so much plenty, as their plenty breedeth their want, for concerning the necessaries for mans life no country is better furnished: and for wealth, the happinesse of their latter government hath given such testimonies of encrease, as already they possesse enough both to defend themselves and to free their country from the imputation of sterility.”

What is Trident’s role?

“If they tell you of the poverty of Scotland, examine whether our wealth shall not come from the addition of their Kingdome, for at once we receive from them the stopping of our unnecesary warres.”

How will independent Scotland handle higher education?

“So shall the poore subiect escape paying fees upon fees, and sometimes double and treble briberies.”

Can we make comparisons to Europe?

‘Deviding a Kingdome into petty principalities prepareth it to bee swallowed by a more united power. So standeth Italy … but why seeke I forrain examples when wee have one of our owne so neare us? Wales is Englished … Successe hath followed, a warrant for the like occasion’

In conclusion, any campaigner must use reason and make sound arguments:

“So must the advised Polititian proceed, if he intendeth to give either a goodly or substantiall forme to his workemanship; for though man can inforce other creatures beyond their willes, yet the will of man, having reason to direct it which hath a freedome and eminencie in her nature, must therfore be wrought by perswasions, not enforcements, the onely means to bring her to obedience, and to yeelde to the directions of others.”

Interesting stuff, and if you want to back it up with some more recent analysis, why not visit our dedicated Politics page to see our selection of referendum-related titles?

The Glasgow School of Art Fire – Blackwell’s Rare Books Makes a Donation


This from Derek Walker, Manager of Blackwell’s Rare and Antiquarian dept

In May this year the Glasgow School of Art suffered a terrible tragedy when an accidental fire threatened the entirety of their famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh building. The fire services made a heroic effort and saved the majority of the building and its contents, but sadly the Mackintosh Library, with its splendid interior and important contents, was lost.

Like many others, we followed the shocking developments as they happened, through Twitter and news stories. Fire is the very first enemy listed in William Blades’ classic treatise on ‘The Enemies of Books’ and just the thought of a burning library must send shivers down the spine of any bibliophile.

mackintoshfireThe idea of replacing a library like this from scratch seemed impossibly daunting, but, like the firefighters, the librarians there have been working heroically and were soon able to issue a list of donations sought to start the rebuilding of the collection. The least we could do was read and publicise their wants list in case there was any way we might be able to help.

As the library’s statement said, they were first seeking ‘to replace those volumes that complemented our Archives and Collections, including the many treatises and illustrated books written, designed and made by our past Directors, tutors, and alumni’. The obvious possibility for us was Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980), a former student and briefly on the staff of the GSA, who went on to become one of the most remarkable British wood engravers of the 20th century. The books she illustrated for the Gregynog Press and the Limited Editions Club are wonderful pieces of book art that we try to have in stock whenever we can.

Gypsy folk tales

Gregynog Press XXI Welsh Gypsy Folk Tales

One of Miller Parker's engravings

One of Miller Parker’s engravings










Luckily, it just so happened that we had a copy of the Gregynog Press XXI Welsh Gypsy Folk Tales of 1933 , which we were in a position to donate immediately. After contacting Duncan Chappell at the GSA to offer it, we arranged for the book to be sent up to Blackwell’s in Edinburgh before being hand-delivered over to Glasgow. Last week our colleague Jane Douglas, Blackwell’s field sales manager for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the North East of England, handed the book over to Duncan’s colleagues, Delphine Dallison and David Buri (thanks also to Darrell, our shop manager in Edinburgh, for assissting the delivery).


One book is just a drop in the bucket, though, and much work remains to be done. The wants list is still online and the librarians at the GSA will be updating it weekly, so it’s easy to tell what’s still needed. The GSA Library website has the list in PDF format , along with a link to donate to the fund to rebuild the library interior. Please share both widely, and help if you can.

Keep in touch with developments at the Glasgow School of Art Library on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, and Pinterest

Blenheim Palace Literary Festival September 25-28

blenheim_palace_north_face__970The literary festival at Blenheim Palace is, once again, upon us. From Thursday 25th September through to Sunday 28th a host of interesting writers and public figures will illuminate, entertain and provoke your thoughts.

Visit the Festival website for full information and to buy tickets and visit our Festival page to buy the books before you go

Books Are My Bag II – a date for your diary


Last year was the inaugural ‘Books Are My Bag’ campaign – a day organised by The Booksellers Association for everyone to have the chance to celebrate bookshops. It was wildly successful with thousands upon thousands of book lovers making a trip to their local bookshop up and down the country. The Saatchi-designed orange bag flooded the streets and sales across the country rose by 18% on the Saturday launch day

It certainly made an impression on Richard Ovenden, Bodley Librarian, with one of my favourite ever tweets about the shop

Richard Ovenden BAMB tweet

So, book lovers, let’s do it all again!

On Saturday October 11th BAMB II is happening.

Fiendish plans are underway to make sure that we play our fullest part here in the shop. The plan is to put on an amazing carnival of bookish loveliness that puts a smile on your face and a book in your bag.

Follow Books Are My Bag on Twitter or their website to keep abreast of news and developments




Great news if you got the grades you required and you are off to Uni – exciting times ahead! If you didn’t get the grades you required don’t panic – there is sensible advice here. Good things can still happen.

We’ve been a University bookseller for over 135 years so we know a thing or two about the student experience. Our ‘student essentials’ page is a great place to start for all your bookish needs, from reading lists to study skills, wise words for young minds to great value textbooks.


Philip Pullman on the power of the book

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In addition to all the fantastic free short talks right here in Blackwell’s during the World Humanist Congress, I was also lucky enough to attend Philip Pullman’s talk at the Sheldonian, mysteriously entitled ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’. Pullman is one of Oxford’s most well-known authors, and it was a real pleasure to hear him speak about the life and responsibilities of writers – the metaphor of the cuckoo’s nest was perfect for discussing the way one’s writing can take over one’s life.

One particular point that Pullman explored was the difference between the relationship of book and author, and that of book and reader.

“Writing is not democracy; writing is tyranny. But reading is democracy.”

What he means by this is that the author may have total control over a book while it is being written, but that the moment it begins to be read, he ceases to have control over how it is read. The reader is free to derive whatever they wish from any book – “when you open a book, it is secret, private” and the relationship is “precious, individual”. This freedom of interpretation fitted in perfectly with the theme of the World Humanist Congress, “Freedom of Thought and Expression”, and was extremely thought-provoking. Certainly I know that the books I’ve fallen most in love with have been the ones I’ve discovered by myself, and not the ones that school teachers demanded I interpret.

Pullman was insistent about the power of literature and the arts to influence children and young people, and lamented that there is little chance for children to discover literature at their own pace. Literature, he argues, shows us what it is to be human, and can be used to equip a reader with an understanding, a model, of how to live – however, this is most powerful if the discovery is organic, and something read as a child suddenly bursts into flower years later, meaning one more facet of humanity makes sense. But, he says, if there is someone watching over the reader’s shoulder, telling them what to think of it, then this magic bond is lost. Pullman is fond of using the words ‘magic’, ‘enchantment’, ‘spell’ – and I think anyone who loves to read will understand why!

As a reader (and I’m sure most of you are), I know that much of my childhood reading, and even the reading I do today, worked to subtly influence how I see the world, and who I am. Watching Anne Shirley grow up through the Anne of Green Gables books gave me a model I still subconsciously aim for; Hermione Granger was the perfect comfort to a frizzy-haired, bookish schoolgirl. So to hear Pullman acknowledge the special bond between reader and book, reader and character, to be as strong if not stronger than the relationship between writers and their own works, was extremely powerful.

Would you agree? Is there something secret between the reader and what they read? Which books and characters have influenced how you see the world?

If this has inspired you to read something by Philip Pullman, then why not pop into the shop, or check out our online store here?