20 Thought-Provoking Books to Enhance Your Understanding of Your Chosen Subject

Student looking for books in a library - English Literature Summer School

Do school curricula and exams make it hard for you to get excited even about your favourite subject?

It’s an irony that right at the time when you need to feel enthusiastic about a subject, namely when you’re applying to study it at university, is also when it’s hardest to summon that enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter how much you love something, carrying on loving it is hard work when you’re thinking about it in terms of marks per question and key points for the exam.
One of the best ways to counteract this is to read around your chosen subject. For that purpose, we’ve assembled this selection of books for every major university subject. Some are controversial; others suggest a tangent from which the subject could be approached that you might not consider in your everyday studies. All should be thought-provoking and interesting.

1. Biology – A Crack in Creation by Jennifer A Doudna and Samuel H Sternberg (2017)

We’ve written before about the hugely exciting progress that CRISPR genome-editing represents. Jennifer Doudna is a leading figure in the development of CRISPR, and with co-author Emmanuelle Charpentier was the first to propose that it could be used for programmable gene editing; Samuel Sternberg is another member of the Doudna lab. Their book explores the background to gene editing, how CRISPR was developed, and the patent battles that ensued, and doesn’t shy away from the ethical questions posed by the things CRISPR might one day enable us to do.

2. Chemistry – The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (2016)

One of the more horrifying stories of where scientific excitement combined with insufficient understanding can lead, The Radium Girls is about the women who worked in factories and painted watch dials with radioactive luminescent paint (so that they could be read at night). Believing the radium they ingested to be harmless, the workers would give their brushes a fine point with their lips. They contracted radiation poisoning, and many died as a result, but they fought to have their employers’ liability for their suffering recognised and changed the way workplace liability was viewed as a result.

3. Classics – Dividing the Spoils by Robin Waterfield (2011)

Alexander the Great’s empire was one of the largest the world had ever seen, covering over two million square miles at its greatest extent. But what became of it after Alexander’s death? That’s the question that Dividing the Spoils seeking to answer, charting the wars that broke out as Alexander’s successors fought among themselves to take his place, resulting in a period of turmoil that lasted for nearly fifty years and that saw the vast empire broken down into separate kingdoms.

4. Computer Science – Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom (2014)

Superintelligence sits at the intersection of science and philosophy, considering the potential and – crucially – the dangers of developing artificial intelligence that can outthink humans. We’ve so far developed computers that far exceed our abilities in specific domains (such as mathematics or chess) but an artificial general intelligence still eludes us. Nick Bostrom doesn’t think this state of affairs will hold for long, and argues that we have to be prepared for the dangers that could result before we develop an AI that by design or by error could cause destruction on an unheard-of scale.

5. Economics – Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon (2008)

Though the focus of Slavery by Another Name is history, it also makes fascinating reading for Economics students; especially those who might have assumed that slavery in the USA ended with the Civil War. Blackmon’s thesis, at least, is that it didn’t; while slavery might have been illegal, the post-Civil War South criminalised vast numbers of black people and then used them as convict labour in a way that was functionally indistinguishable from slavery. Blackmon particularly looks at the role and responsibility of corporations in creating and enabling this system.

6. Engineering – The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (2015)

When Eric Horvitz became director of Microsoft’s Building 99 research lab, he gave each of his employees a copy of this book, in order to show them what it takes to invent an entirely new industry. McCullough is unashamedly excited and inspired by the story that he relates, admiring the Wright brothers not only as pioneers who achieved something remarkable, but also as people who embodied “truly admirable human qualities”. In particular, he shows the level of experimentation and determination that it took for the brothers to learn how to fly.  

7. English – Stet by Diana Athill (2000)

As a prospective English student, it’s worth knowing not only about the content of books but the process of publication. Diana Athill’s memoirs provide a fascinating insight into publishing throughout the 20th century. Part of the book is about her own life and the publishing company at which she was an editor, André Deutsch, while the rest is a frank account of her relationships with the different writers whom she published, including Jean Rhys and V S Naipaul.

8. Geography – Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

A book with a vast scope, this looks at why some societies fail and others succeed; in particular, why Eurasian and North African civilisations have been so successful compared to the people of other continents, who have been variously conquered, displaced, and nearly wiped out. Diamond’s thought-provoking thesis is that this stems all the way back to the rise of agriculture after the last Ice Age, caused by environmental differences and sustained by positive feedback loops.

9. History – 1492 by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (2009)

Drawing on some of the same themes as Guns, Germs and Steel, Felipe Fernández-Armesto looks at the world in the pivotal year of 1492: he calls it ‘the year the world began’, and his justification for that claim goes far beyond Columbus reaching the Americas. He looks at that year in Italy, Spain, Russia, Korea, Mexico, China and beyond, describing the world-changing events that took place there. Where most histories might follow a country or an individual through time, it’s fascinating to look at history from a different perspective by focusing on a single, crucial year.

10. History of Art – The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt (2011)

Perhaps the most significant period in the history of art is the Renaissance, and that is Greenblatt’s focus in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. He argues that the medieval world was set on a particular anti-modern course, until unexpected and unlikely events caused it to ‘swerve’ from that path. The book has led to much controversy and discussion, with some critics praising it fulsomely, and others challenging its central thesis and suggesting it draws too stark a contrast between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

11. International Relations – Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015)

The subtitle of Prisoners of Geography is Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know. Marshall’s thesis is that the decisions countries make in their relations with each other are motivated much less by differing ideologies than by basic physical characteristics that have remained unchanged for centuries. It’s a challenge to the field of international relations, suggesting that so much comes down not to the decisions voters and their leaders make, but simply to questions of geography that leave them no real choice.

12. Law – Privacy on the Ground by Kenneth Bamberger and Deirdre Mulligan (2015)

How to defend privacy in an age of terrorism and big data is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Bamberger and Mulligan’s book looks at how this question has been approached in five different developed countries (the UK, USA, France, Germany and Spain), how this has been affected by their different cultural and legal frameworks and how successful their differing approaches have been in practice, based on interviews with the corporate employees on the frontline of protecting privacy.

13. Mathematics – The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (2012)

When Nate Silver correctly predicted the results of the 2012 US election in all 50 states, many people wanted to know how he did it. The Signal and the Noise is his answer, explaining how he builds mathematical models using probability and statistics, and then applies those models to real-world events. It’s an endearing book in that Silver is consistently modest, honest and self-effacing, and it’s rich with examples that make it accessible despite its potentially difficult subject matter.

14. Medicine – Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (2012)

The best intentions can be ruined by a bad system, and according to Ben Goldacre there are plenty of broken systems in the pharmaceutical industry, from the publication (or non-publication) of drug trials to the various ways by which pharmaceutical companies try to influence doctors to prescribe their drugs. The subtitle is “How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients”, and as that would suggest, it’s a book that pulls no punches in describing what’s wrong and the many things that need to be done to fix it.

15. Modern Languages – What Language Is by John McWhorter (2011)

John McWhorter is a serious enthusiast about languages and that shines through in his book. His main point is that even though English is the most-spoken language in the world, far more languages are unlike English in their key features (such as regularity) than are like English. It’s a point that’s illustrated by a cornucopia of examples from throughout history and from across the world, including those with very few speakers, as well as creoles and slang.

16. Music – Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter (1979)

Trying to explain what Gödel, Escher, Bach is actually about is something of a challenge. Hofstadter has refuted the idea that it’s about the intersection of mathematics, art and music (as the title might suggest) and said instead that it’s about many things up to “what makes for a self, and what makes for a soul.” It’s a collection of fascinating ideas in relation to the themes of – yes – mathematics, music and art, but also intelligence, communication and symbolic representation. That’s all capped with whimsical humour that helped make it a bestseller.

17. Philosophy – The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O Wilson (2014)

This is a book in philosophy written by a biologist. In a series of interconnected essays, Wilson explores not only the biological answer to where humanity came from, but how that affects our lives today and our potential for flourishing in the future. He acknowledges the strong genetic component in our behaviour, that we are not yet well adapted for the modern world, but argues that this can and will be overcome.

18. Physics – Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark (2014)

Tegmark’s book is superficially an interesting introduction to the most recent developments (at least, when it was written) in astrophysics and quantum theory. But on a deeper level, it posits Tegmark’s belief that reality is not merely explained by mathematics, but is itself a mathematical structure – and that physicists should study it with that conclusion in mind. It’s a doorstopper book of over 400 pages, but written in relaxed and accessible prose.

19. Politics – The Blair Years by Alastair Campbell (2007)

Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s spokesman and campaign director for many years, and in 2007, after Blair had resigned as Prime Minister, he published this book, consisting of excerpts from his diaries over those years. It’s a book that’s by turns illuminating and insightful, depressing and demoralising, vengeful and petty, that uses a lot of strong language, and that – for those interested in the internal workings of British politics – is utterly compelling.

20. Psychology – The Selfishness of Others by Kristin Dombek (2016)

Modern culture is obsessed with narcissism, or so Dombek believes. What we see as reasonable behaviour in ourselves, we perceive as unreasonable in others; and as a plethora of blogs, videos and advice columns demonstrate, we are exceptionally keen not only to identify certain actions as a character flaw, but to pathologise and diagnose them as narcissism. Dombek argues that this can be a scapegoating technique, intended not to help solve the perceived problems of the narcissist but to justify coldness or even violence towards them on the basis of this psychological diagnosis.