An Innocent Abroad: Starting Out in Oxford

It is by a stroke of good fortune and a gesture of good faith that PUP has seen fit to permit me to spend this academic year living and working from Oxford. It is good fortune insofar as we have a lovely and cozy (and I do mean cozy) office in Woodstock full (and I do mean full) of wonderful colleagues who all share our trans-Atlantic commitment to being a global publisher. It shows good faith that our Director Christie Henry and the Head of Our European Office Caroline Priday, have supported this knowing there was a distinct possibility I might enter that shrine to books that is Blackwell’s legendary bookshop never to be seen or heard from again (more on that later).

It was a busy first month or so getting settled in our home away from home. I am now largely familiar with the inner workings of the banking system, the variety of mobile phone plans, and what school “catchments” mean as well as the fact that there is something called “Brexit” which most everyone seems to agree is bad, but which a frightening number of people think that they should “just get on with it already”, as if it were just a routine appendectomy. (It is also no joking matter, unless, of course, you are a guest on one of the several news quiz show panels on the BBC that I have become addicted to). After I mastered that, I looked something like this:

I was then off and running, almost literally, to as many as meetings as I can muster each week with scholars here in Oxford. This is the scholarly publisher’s equivalent of a kid in candy store and if I am anything like my son, with whom I have been to actual candy stores, this may require some boxes and a handtruck.

As our authors Daniel Bell and Avner de Shalit call it in their book The Spirit of Cities, Oxford is truly the “City of Learning.” It is the original and ultimate college town. It is not so much “town and gown” as “town as gown.” Walking the streets you can’t help but feel this is a place dedicated to learning (or if you are in Christ Church where they filmed the Hogwarts dining hall scenes in the Harry Potter movies, a place dedicated to learning magic). It is an inspiring place of students, scholars and scholarship, and really, really old buildings. Back in Princeton, I can recall walking past Nassau Hall and thinking how cool it was that it dates back to the mid-18th century when the college was founded. That’s what they call a “new college” here. In fact, there is a New College Oxford and it was founded in 1379! But there is undoubtedly an academic aroma constantly in the air—albeit mixed with the occasional wafting of spices from a kebab truck parked on Broad St. most evenings (and that’s “kebab” pronounced to rhyme with “tab” not “bob”).

It is thrilling to be here in such surroundings and to see a city essentially dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and its transmission. But that feeling isn’t limited to the university itself. In the center of town across the street from the world’s great library, The Bodleian, is another great temple dedicated to books, the aforementioned Blackwell’s Bookshop, whose offerings are immense, immaculate, and often “3 for the price of 2”— a blessed offering as any I have encountered.

Get 3 for 2! Or better yet 6 for 4! Collect them all!

Going there on a Saturday or Sunday morning is akin to a holy experience. Just look at how many people showed up on Saturday morning at 11am to hear Nigel Warburton in conversation with Sue Prideaux, author of a new biography of Nietzsche. I was first in line to get her to sign a copy of her book and, of course, tell her about our soon to be published intellectual biography of Nietzsche biographer and translator, Walter Kaufmann. She seemed genuinely eager to receive a copy (arguably to make up for the fact that there is only one footnote to Kaufmann in her biography) which we will dispatch soon (that’s right dispatch, not send).

Just another Saturday morning in Oxford

The shop is teeming with the eye candy of beautifully designed and packaged books that scream, “judge this book by its cover!” And you would be right to do so, because the contents are often as alluring as the cover is fetching. My weekly (or thrice weekly) trips to Blackwell’s have reminded me that there is in this worrisome world an audience for serious non-fiction properly packaged and promoted. And this is true not just at Blackwell’s but at the other bookstores I have visited here as well. Serious books remain a potent source for understanding. I am also immensely pleased and proud that they seem to really like our Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (either that or Andrew Brewer, our International Sales Director, told them I was coming and bribed them to strategically place these face-out around the store; I guess they call that co-op back in the States).

Display your wisdom!

In fact, our Ancient World offerings are very well-represented here as well as so many of our other books.

As I write Thanksgiving approaches—well, not here it doesn’t, though Black Friday seems to have strangely caught on—so it seemed as good a time as any to say how immensely thankful I am for my sojourn here, how thankful I am to my colleagues, the city of Oxford, and especially Blackwell’s for reminding me each and every week why I love being in publishing so very much (and why I need that job if I am going to pay for all these books I am buying).

P.S. Lest people think I only spend my time in bookstores, we did make a trip to Greece at the end of October for my son’s “half-term” break (the schools appear to be closed here roughly every eight weeks) where I visited the Temple of Hephaestus. To find out more about the god Hephaestus see Adrienne Mayor’s just published Gods and Robots.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Rob Tempio

Senior Publisher, Executive Editor, Expatriate