Spotlight: The Oxford Review of Books (ORB)

Benjamin Davies, ex-Editor of The Oxford Review of Books (ORB) and one of its founding staff, discusses the beginnings of this "cultural magazine" and how it fits into the student media scene at the University of Oxford. 

Launch of the first issue of the Oxford Review of Books, Photo: Claire Paice

Launch of the first issue of the Oxford Review of Books, Photo: Claire Paice

The Oxford Review of Books (also known as the ORB) filled a hole in the University of Oxford’s writing scene. Until recently, Oxford didn’t have a print equivalent of the LondonParis or New York Review of Books, or The Times Literary Supplement — cultural titans which produce serious, longform writing. Then, in Trinity of 2017, the ORB was born: a termly magazine containing longform articles, interviews, and poetry, written by both undergraduates and graduates.

The ORB doesn’t just review books. The phrase “cultural magazine” describes the breadth and depth of ORB content. Now onto only its fourth issue, the ORB has published on subjects ranging from AI to the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, from contemporary academic philosophy to the nationalist co-option of Yiddish in Lithuania. The articles are illustrated with original, in-house art, commissioned to fit every piece. To counterbalance the weighty articles of each 32-page issue, short poetry is interspersed throughout, and a section of perhaps not-entirely-genuine classified adverts is found at the back. Despite its youth, the ORB has made good connections. It has interviewed Philippe Sands, Anne Sebba, Mary Beard, Colm Tóibín, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Helen Dunmore, Amia Srinivasan, Quassim Cassam, Nick Clegg, Ed Balls, and Derek Jacobi. It has published original poetry by Simon Armitage, Lawrence Sail, and Bernard O’Donoghue, and had John Mullan, Adam Mars-Jones and Victoria Hislop speak at the launch events.

Launch of ORB's most recent issue 

Launch of ORB’s most recent issue

The longform writing, seen nowhere else in Oxford journalism, is not the ORB’s only unique quality. Print is the ORB’s modus vivendi. Its tabloid size, high-quality matte paper and clean design make it a joy to hold and read. While most university-wide publications at Oxford have a rotating stock of two editors, the ORB usually has three or four, with one staying on for two issues. (This has helped ensure healthy consistency in the magazine, if not in that particular editor’s degree.) The ORB is also the only Oxford publication that has normalised a mixture of undergrad and postgrad involvement both behind the scenes and on the page.

The launch events are the highlight of the ORB termly calendar. Each issue of the magazine has its own launch party, usually held in the last two weeks of term, at an Oxford bookshop or college. Attendees can buy the magazine, there is copious free drink and food at each event, and illustrious guest speakers from the literary world give short speeches. Attendance at these events has never dropped below 100.

Setting up a new magazine hasn’t all been plain sailing, but the ORB has always been pulled through stormy weather by a labour of love. During the lay-ins (putting the magazine together before printing) the team is known to achieve sleep deficits that would have made Margaret Thatcher wince. Nearby coffee and takeaway shops have been said to take more than 80% of their annual revenue during the periods. An essay produced by one editor during the first issue lay-in was later described by their tutor as ‘the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’

The ORB also provides a demonstration of the challenges faced by print media. It has entered print journalism at a time when the traditional funding models are being shaken up. Nonetheless, each issue has found funds, and through buying the ORB Oxford students are doing their bit to support quality writing. Who knows? Things might get even better if a certain founding editor stops giving away bottles of wine at the launch events… 

The next issue of the Oxford Review of Books launches in week 7 of Trinity Term. Follow the Facebook page to find out more details. Visit to buy the current and previous issues of the magazine.