Bookshop news and events

‘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 (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

New Murakami, Early Opening, Signed Copy to be won!

murakami coverWe are booksellers so we love Haruki Murakami (it seems to be a law of bookselling). Ever since this new novel was published in Japan 18 months agao to scenes reminiscent of The Beatles our bookish senses have been tingling with anticipation.

The wait is virtually over. Tomorrow, Tuesday August 11th, we open the shop at 7.30am to let you (us, really) get your copy early. But wait. Thanks to the largesse of the lovely people at Random House you can have the chance to win a signed 1st edition. All you have to do is visit the shop between 7.30am and 9.00am to be entered into the draw.

If I was you I would heed the timeless advice of Matt Bianco!

See you in the morning Murakami-lovers!


World Humanist Congress 2014 Highlights

What a weekend! With over 1000 delegates from all over the world descending on Oxford for the 2014 World Humanist Congress, and a series of ten world-famous humanists giving free talks in the Norrington Room, the bookshop was absolutely buzzing.

The range of subjects discussed was huge, from religion to the nature of the universe, from morality to medicine. Some serious debate was had during Richard Dawkins’ Q&A session, while Jim Al-Khalili had the whole room chuckling with the clever analogies he used to explain paradoxes. Another highlight was Simon Singh playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards to prove that the human mind can be tricked into seeing or hearing something that it expects!

The atmosphere all weekend was fantastic, and we’re thrilled to have seen so many of you getting involved asking questions or just taking in the talks. The whole Norrington Room came alive with eager audiences:

singh audience

Simon Singh explores alternative medicine.

photo 2 (1)

Jim Al-Khalili reads from ‘Paradox’.

photo 1 (5)

Kenan Malik running through the history of morality.

audeince 1

A huge crowd waiting for Richard Dawkins’ talk.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Blackwell’s event without a great selection of books, and we created individual displays for each speaker’s titles:

photo 1

photo 2

photo 3

Each speaker very kindly spent some time signing books – perhaps one of the most exciting was this first edition of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene':

dawkins signing

Steve Smith with his newly signed first edition.


Nick Cohen signing ‘You Can’t Read This Book’.

But don’t worry if you missed out! Our World Humanist Congress section in the Norrington Room is sticking around for two weeks, so you can still pick up some great titles by these and other authors from the Congress.

(Picture from @humanism2014 Twitter)

Were you here for any of the talks? What was your highlight of the weekend? Don’t forget, you can tweet us any pictures or comments at @blackwelloxford!

World Humanist Congress 2014 – Sunday’s Speakers

It’s the final day of our fabulous free World Humanist Congress talks here in the bookshop, in our world-famous Norrington Room! If you haven’t made it down to one yet, now is your chance to be part of #WHC2014, and have your thoughts thoroughly provoked.

At 2pm, we have Kenan Malik, asking ‘What can the history of morality tell us about the nature of morality?’.


Then at 3pmStephen Law will be discussing ‘Why I’m An Atheist’.



This afternoon should be a great finish to our series of humanist talks, and we hope that you come down and enjoy them with us. Both speakers will be signing copies of their books after their talks, and we have a wide range of their titles and other relevant titles in stock in our dedicated World Humanist Congress section, down in the Norrington Room.

And in the meantime, check out our fab World Humanist Congress page here, where you can see books by all our Congress speakers, and other relevant titles.

Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter, using the #WHC2014 hashtag – we’re at @blackwelloxford.

World Humanist Congress 2014 – Saturday’s Speakers

The World Humanist Congress is in full swing today, and we have another four great talks from some remarkable speakers laid on in the bookshop today – just pop down to the Norrington Room for any or all of these free 20 minute talks! Yesterday’s talks were very well-attended, so please arrive early to be sure to get some space.

At 12pm, we’ll be kicking things off with Peter Tatchell, who’ll be giving a talk entitled ‘Organised Religion Is The Greatest Global Threat To Human Rights’.


Then at 2pm, we’ll host Nick Cohen – no confirmed subject as yet, but it’s sure to be fascinating.

Nick CohenNext up, at 3pm, Simon Singh will be asking ‘Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial’.

Image of Simon Singh

 And finally for today, at 4pm Martin Rowson will discuss ‘Laughing with Disbelief’. 

martinrowson200As you can see, today’s line up is another four fantastic speakers, and a unique opportunity to hear a wide range of free short talks by some of the world’s most renowned thinkers. We have a great selection of their titles available to buy from our dedicated World Humanist Congress Section in the Norrington Room. Even better, after each talk, there’ll be a chance to have your books signed.

And in the meantime, check out our fab World Humanist Congress page here, where you can see books by all our Congress speakers, and other relevant titles.

Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter, using the #WHC2014 hashtag – we’re at @blackwelloxford.