Review: Rhetoric — A Very Short Introduction

Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Toye


Oxford Press’ Very Short Introduction series is a godsend for someone like me. I’ve mentioned before that there are massive, gaping holes in my pop cultural education (I have never seen The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music), but there are some in my academic education as well. Lately, I’ve come to tackle my blind spots with equally blind enthusiasm (“I’ve never seen a James Bond film! LET’S WATCH ALL OF THEM!”), but some are easier to tackle than others. And that’s why this series is perfect for me: in a little over one hundred pages, each volume has more depth and focus than a Wikipedia article and allows me to get a feel for the basics without going deeper into the subject than I need to.

Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction, one of the latest installments in the wide-reaching series, is written by Richard Toye, currently the Professor Modern History at the University of Exeter. Starting with a brief overview of the history of rhetoric (otherwise known as the art of discourse or public speaking) as a practice, Toye then goes into how classical rhetoric is constructed, how it has been used in recent history, and how it is changing in the face of new communication technologies connecting the world.

In contrast against Music: A Very Short Introduction, the only other Very Short Introduction text I’ve read, Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction is constructed as if meant for use in a class. A little over a week out of college, I appreciate that, but not only for nostalgia’s sake. By giving us specific exercises to examine the basics of rhetoric in, the casual reader gets to flex their rhetorical skills. And the historical timeline is much appreciated—I have difficulty placing things in temporal context, so having that right off the bat was great.

But I’ll admit: this felt like academic reading until Toye began to examine the implications of rhetoric and, more broadly, language itself. Towards the end, he discusses the use of symbol in rhetoric, quoting Kenneth Burke in describing man as the symbolic animal. (I’ve got three more book recommendations out of this. Magnificent!) For instance, the idea of capitalism being tyranny will often be expressed with metaphors about faceless corporations and chains. It’s the same reason a novel appeals to us much more than its outline: humanity, according to Toye and the scholars he draws upon, can grasp ideas and concepts through something that is only “rhetorically” true. I happen to think sometimes they can be communicated better that way, but I can only speak to my own experience.

In fact, I think there’s a lot of overlap between my training as a literary critic and rhetoric. As a discipline, Toye states, rhetoric has mostly dissolved into adjacent fields—public speaking obviously comes to mind, but also literature. When discussing how to properly analyze rhetoric (say, an inaugural speech), he offers guidelines familiar to anyone who analyzes literature. Ultimately, this overlap can be boiled down to three questions: what is this person saying, why are they saying, and why are they saying it the way they’re saying it? Toye does go into some of the more mechanical bits of rhetoric (I learned what antimetabole is!), but this, I think, is the beating heart of why understanding rhetoric is so important. It can give you the upper hand.

Equally interesting is the fact that modern rhetoric must now contend with the globalization of communication media. Rhetoric—and human interaction, really—is often very dependent on a group of people sharing the same assumptions and reference points. But now your words can travel far beyond your intended audience, letting everybody know exactly what your ideology is. Remember Romney and the 47%? As a reader-response theorist at heart, I’m tempted to link these two impulses together. We increasingly live in a world where few people experience things in the moment (something I’m still parsing out for myself) and more people experience things after the fact. At the end of this book, Toye quotes Walter Og: “According to Walter Ong, human culture moved broadly from its initial ‘primary orality’, in which the spoken word was everything, to dependence on writing, to the ‘secondary orality’ of the modern age” (106). Your words can go farther than you are; understanding rhetoric helps those words to be as clear (or as opaque) as you want them to be.

Bottom line: Another solid introduction to an academic topic from Oxford Press’ Very Short Introduction series. Toye’s timeline and exercises are academically useful, but I found the exploration of the implications of rhetoric and language as a whole as a means of communication fascinating. If you’d like!

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes from Oxford Press.

2 thoughts on “Review: Rhetoric — A Very Short Introduction

  1. I had no idea this series existed! And they have it at my library! I think my TBR just collapsed out of sheer awesomeness (Philosophy of Science! Ancient Egypt! Cosmology! The Vikings! EVERYTHING!)

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