18 December 2015

CapX tries author speed dating

By James Pilditch

As much as I love a good book I could still not have imagined the intrigue and entertainment that could be had at the back of a bookshop. On an evening last week I was dragged along to an unusual sounding event: speed dating with authors. Organised by the Oxford University Press (OUP) and hosted by Waterstones bookshop in Piccadilly in its basement cafe, it certainly sounded mysterious.

Upon arrival, a table of complementary wine beckoned us in as we joined a small crowd of fellow speed daters. After an enthusiastic welcome from our host, Katie, we were split into groups and the order of the evening was explained: six of OUP’s expert authors were in our midst and had been placed around the room, surrounded by comfy chairs. Each was an expert in their particular field, Art History, Autism, Taxation, Psychoanalysis, Shakespeare, and Contemporary Literature, and all had authored the relevant book in OUP’s latest series, A Very Short Introduction. Our little groups were to cycle between the authors, our dates, sitting down with each for exactly eight minutes and could ask them any question – any at all – on their subject.

After we’d all topped up with wine, the dating began. My group of four was directed first to Daniel Pick, author of A Very Short Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Daniel greeted us warmly as we sat down and, upon discovering that our knowledge of his subject was limited to the word “Freud”, he launched into an excited exposition on the history of psychoanalysis and its principle figures. We warmed quickly to the discussion and soon Daniel found himself cheerfully overwhelmed by our wide-eyed interruptions.

Then, suddenly, a bell rung and we were ushered to our next date: Stephen Smith, author of A Very Short Introduction to Taxation. Stephen welcomed us into our seats and happily submitted to interrogation on the optimal level of tax and on what he thought was the most inefficient tax currently levied in the UK (council tax, he said). Then just as our interest in tax was being piqued more than we had ever thought it could, the bell was ringing again and we were sitting down with Stanley Wells, author of A Very Short Introduction to William Shakespeare.

Each of our dates was fascinating and all equally delighted by our questions, even the most primitive. Stanley Wells schooled us on what we can learn of Shakespeare’s love life from the content of his plays. Dana Arnold discussed how the way we relate to art has changed across its history. Uta Frith explained why autism is genetic and not simply something that we all experience in varying degrees. Robert Eaglestone revealed why contemporary fiction always insists on having a conclusion, unlike the postmodern stories that precede it. And then, a final bell and we were back outside on the street, buzzing with ideas and chatting breathlessly.

Despite my initial uncertainty towards a mysterious event that combined the words speed date and author, I was utterly charmed. I have since become the keen enthusiast of six new subjects – subjects that I had previously overlooked or only mildly entertained. Going on a speed date with an author appears to be a marvellous way to spend an evening. Now if I could only find out when the next one is…

James Pilditch is Editor at the Centre for Policy Studies.