Differently than other Very Short Introductions (VSI) by Oxford Press, this one on presocratic philosophy by Catherine Osborne, a professor of ancient philosophy at the University of East Anglia, clearly demonstrates that "short" does not always mean "easy". On the contrary, the more the information that must be squeezed into a given small format (such as the VSI's 160 pages), the more difficult this endeavour becomes for both the author and the reader. In the present case, the result swings between inconsistency and superficiality.
Given the subject of this book, Osborne faced a titanic challenge, namely that of summarizing two of the most innovative centuries of the history of thought, with nothing more than fragmentary sources at hand. But instead of humbly recognizing the difficulty of this task, for example by limiting the scope of the book to the essential aspects of the philosophical debate of that time as discussed by different thinkers, Osborne chooses a conventional chronological approach and tries to handle the complete philosophy systems of Empedocles, Parmenides, Heraclitus, etc., in dedicated chapters. This may work fine in a conventionally long volume but not within the claustrophobic constraints of a VSI. To make things worse, there are unbalances like the unexpectedly lenghty detours in which Osborne gets trapped on and off. One of these is the verbous discussion at the beginning of Chapter 2 about what she calls "the story", meaning a main-stream taxonomy of presocratic philosophers according to which Parmenides would have been arbitrarily made a successor of Heraclitus to present the philosophy of the former as a superior solution to weak points of the latter, in the name of monadic unity. Maybe she has a point but then why does she conclude Chapter 5 about Heraclitus by saying: "Perhaps Heraclitus lived before Parmenides, perhaps he lived after, perhaps he lived at the same time". If she has no evidence to support one or the other hypothesis then what is the value of the polemic in Chapter 2?
But Osborne's biggest methodological blunder in this short text has probably to do with her decision to paste translations of Empedocles', Parmenides' and Heraclitus' fragments in it and then try to reconstruct the philosophies of those thinkers via a bottom-up approach. This is definitely not possible in just few pages. Instead, it would require entire volumes to address all translation questions and interpretation problems that such cryptic, incomplete and ancient texts bring with them.
The paradox of this very short volume is that, instead of allowing the readers to save time, it forces them to look for other books to fill the gaps contained in this one. Not exactly the marketing idea behind the VSI series.