Seamus Perry on the arrival of the university’s two holy books

One day, late in September, you enter the post-room and every pigeon-hole contains a large grey and white block, at first sight something like a piece of well-shaped modernist rock.

But the distinctive reek of fresh print confirms that this is not another ill-considered attempt at ‘outreach’ by the Fellow in geology: it is the annual arrival of the new examination regulations.

This immense tome, the result of long incremental decades of decision and revised decision, gathers into one place all the academic regulations by which the university chooses to live. It describes all the courses that Oxford has to offer, often in extremely minute detail; and tutors will be turning to it throughout the year. Just as, I imagine, seasoned backbenchers reach for their copies of Erskine-May’s Parliamentary Procedure in moments of particular indecision or when they’ve arrived at a loose end.

It is one of the two holy books of the university, though perhaps not quite so dear to the average don’s heart as its more colourful sister, the university calendar, which also comes out at this time of year. Among other things, the calendar lists all the academics in the university, with their professional titles and associations, and the extended sprinklings of capital letters that follow their surnames, as well as the more noteworthy committees and boards into which they have been lured for the year to come.

It is thoroughly Byzantine as a whole and wholly pellucid in its individual parts, a perfect encapsulation of the university it describes, and like any good work of art, it offers its reader both comfort and hope – mainly the unspeakable pleasure, annually, of seeing that your name is still there when you check.

For the cognoscenti it is as absorbing as schoolboys used to find dungeons and dragons, and in some ways describes a parallel universe no less peculiar, though usually less dependent on the casting of odd-shaped dice. The great moral challenge it poses to those whom it includes is the number and nature of the achievements to be listed in the endnote attached to your name.

This note serves no obvious function other than to remind your colleagues of your, frankly, greater success, but it is important to pitch the thing correctly. If, in the dark thickets of the small print, you find “Honorary Fellow, St John’s College, Cambridge” or “Distinguished Professor, Harvard University, 1998-9”, the effect is marvellous. On the other hand, “Acting Chair, Lawn Working Group, 2000” will impress no one, or not in the right way.

Anyway, back in your room, it is time to chuck out the old regs. I am always amazed by the way in which, each year, the immense mass of paper which they collectively represent seems somehow to disappear via 1,000 waste-paper baskets without a trace – rather like the innumerable steam trains that used to power up and down the land, or typewriters, or radiograms: where on earth did they all go? It would make you reflect upon the mutability of all things human if the new term were not pressing.