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Book review: The University of Oxford, a History

Ben Ray digs into this herculean history of the university, undertaken by Magdalen's own Professor Brockliss

When Professor Brockliss’ hefty tome ‘The University of Oxford: a History’ fell onto my desk to review, I must admit that I was apprehensive. At nearly 900 pages and carrying the kind of weight that would make you reluctant to heave it back from the Bodleian to college, this new, complete history of the university is no shallow coffee-table read. But once you manage to struggle past its imposing exterior, this book reveals itself as surprisingly readable and absorbing. Perhaps it’s that guilty pleasure of the ‘oh, I’ve been there’ compulsion (I defy you not to immediately skip to the index to find where your college is mentioned) or perhaps it’s the simple revelation that there is so much history and so many stories embedded within this institution, but I soon became quite captivated by this thorough dissection of the university’s past.

Although the text does in certain chapters become heavy going and slightly dry, the chapters mostly flow with a sophisticated, easy going style that draws you on to the next discussion. After the initial few sections, the reader begins to adjust to the constant barrage of dates, names and situations – indeed, as the narrative of the university develops and starts to mold itself into a recognisable shape I found myself eagerly jumping chapters to follow a thread that was picked up later in the book. This stylistic engagement can come as no surprise: just a quick browse on SOLO reveals that the author, Professor LWB Brockliss, has more books and articles to his name than you could fit on a fresher’s reading list. A historian at Magdalen College, he specialises in the history of education, science and medicine, and his many years of leading tutorials is shown in the adept juggling of endless source materials to create a single, approachable volume of the university’s history.

The book’s format also reflects a concise, accessible treatment of the vast topic that is the university’s past. Split into four chronological parts, the text gives a succinct overview and analysis of the various political, social and religious influences on the university through the years – and hints at how the institution has shaped the rest of the world. Each section even finishes with a summarising conclusion, tying up the various loose ends that have been opened in the preceding few chapters. Brockliss’ herculean study is also illustrated with various images and photos from around the university, as well as by chronologies, maps and tables that help to contextualise the various debates.

At £35 in hardback, this book isn’t exactly a cheap bedtime read – more of a long term investment or summer vac project. But it’s not just the beautiful book jacket that presumably raises the cost. Brockliss’ work is crammed with fascinating discussions, debates and analyses concerning the university and its place in history – and, indeed, in the world.

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