8 Things to Read to Enhance Your General Knowledge
You’re so deeply focused on the subjects that you need to do well in to get into the university you want that one day you take a breather and realise that you don’t know very much else at all. Say you want to study Engineering, and you’re taking Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry at AS-level. You’ve memorised more formulae than you can shake a bunsen burner at. You know enough laws named after 17th century scientists to fill an alphabet. You’ve never met a graph you didn’t like. But once your exams are done and the summer holidays roll around, you realise that you haven’t read anything that isn’t a textbook in months and you’re hazy on who the Prime Minister is.
Nor is this a problem restricted to prospective engineers. All subject areas can be similarly prone to this painful intensity of focus. It’s not a bad way to be when you’re deep in exam season. But what happens when you emerge the other side, and decide you want to be a well-rounded human being capable of holding a conversation on topics unrelated to Engineering? We’ve compiled this list of recommended things to read – some magazines, some books, some assorted others – that will bring you up to speed on any topic you might care to think of.
The Economist is a weekly news magazine, edited in London but sold around the globe. It’s noted for being a genuinely international overview of economics and politics; its stock-in-trade is stories exploring things like the economic and political ramifications of, say, problems with gathering the sweet potato harvest of Burundi.
The side effect of this is that a lot of people buy the Economist as a statement of their own intelligence and cosmopolitanism without actually reading it. The magazine cultivates the image of being read only by the intelligent and successful, with advertising saying things like, “I never read The Economist… management trainee aged 42” and “Stop having to remind people who you are”. Buying it and actually reading it is likely to prove a considerable boost to your knowledge not only of the current affairs that most regular newspaper-readers will be aware of, but also of under-reported events of the kind that we looked at in this article.
If the Economist isn’t to your taste, then you might want to consider a different news magazine along similar lines; few address international issues in a comparably wide-ranging way, but most offer a chance to get up to speed with current affairs if you don’t have time for a daily newspaper. The editorial stance of the Economist is classical liberalism. In the UK, a more right-wing option is offered by the Spectator, while the New Statesman takes a more left-wing stance.
If you’re interested less in current affairs and more in general intellectual life, you might wish to consider a subscription to the London Review of Books (or a similar publication – the Dublin or New York Review of Books might suit you better depending on where you live). The LRB is a fortnightly journal of literary and intellectual essays: the current issue has essays on the Iliad, on disliking poetry, on the Republican nomination for the 2016 Presidential elections in the USA, and on the writer Joseph Mitchell. Most issues are comparably eclectic.
Even if you have no interest whatsoever in a given essay’s subject matter, they are normally a pleasure to read simply because of the unusually high quality of the writing. Being carried along by exceptional prose is a wonderful way to gain knowledge of subjects you otherwise wouldn’t care to explore.
3. A Brief History of Time
The first of our specific book recommendations: A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, is the best-selling popular science book of all time. Written in 1988, it looks at the origin and nature of the universe – and updated versions are available for the areas in which our understanding has progressed since its first publication. Hawking was famously warned that for every equation he included, his readership would halve, so he included only one. That doesn’t mean that this book is easy to read, though Hawking does his best. Here’s an extract:
“The value of the grand unification energy is not very well known, but it would probably have to be at least a thousand million million GeV… A machine that was powerful enough to accelerate particles to the grand unification energy would have to be as big as the Solar System – and would be unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate.”
The first three or four chapters are reasonably easy to follow even if your Maths and Physics is relatively limited. After that, it gets trickier – but for the sake of having at least same grasp of the answers to some of the biggest questions humanity has ever posed, it’s worth giving it a shot.
If A Brief History of Time was a bit too mathsy for you, here’s an alternative popular science book that will boost your general knowledge in unexpected ways. Written by Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and the author of the XKCD webcomic, What If offers ‘serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions’, such as “What would it be like to swim in a lake on the Moon?” and “What if I made a lava lamp out of real lava?” These are all illustrated with line drawings of stick figures, and are extremely funny. Some of them are also available online.
But while you’re sniggering over Munroe’s brilliantly literal answer to the question “What would happen if everyone on earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?”, you might also find that you’re learning bits and pieces of science. The Twitter account @WhatIfNumbers demonstrates the breadth of research that Munroe carries out in order to answer these questions, by posting the odder bits of numerical trivia he finds along the way. You might find yourself learning about the effects of neutrinos or details of undersea geology while you enjoy the bizarre things people ask about cows. It’s a very pleasant way to expand your general knowledge – and you can always submit questions for consideration yourself, too.
Oxford University Press has so far published over 500 Very Short Introductions, which are books of around 150 pages or 35,000 words, designed to introduce the reader to a particular academic topic in a balanced and comprehensive way. They cover topics from Accounting, Advertising and African American Religion to Wittgenstein, World Music and World War II. They’re all written by experts in their fields, which means they are all written with the passion and dedication of someone who truly loves the subject they’re writing about. It also means they’re written in a variety of different styles, reflective of the typical styles of the academic fields they represent, which makes reading several a pleasantly varied experience.
Reading all of them would cost over £4,000 (at £8 each) and take the average reader more than a thousand hours to get through, so we don’t necessarily recommend doing that. But it’s certainly worth picking up one or two on a subject you’d like to know more about – and if you’re hooked, each one includes tips for further reading if you’d like more than an introduction to the subject.
As a celebration of the 80th anniversary of Penguin Books, Penguin have launched a series called ‘Little Black Classics’ – pocket-sized 80p books from 80 of the world’s greatest writers, historical and contemporary. From Thomas Hardy to Dante, Anton Chekhov to Christina Rossetti, the books are short stories, essays, poems and sometimes extracts from novels, which are all only 64 pages long. If you want to own them all, there’s even a box set.
The great thing about the Little Black Classics is that they offer a taster of the world’s greatest writers, but without the daunting length of most of their better-known books – particularly relevant given that their writers include Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. You can get to know their style and subject matter without feeling the need to finish an enormous tome. The other advantage is that you frequently end up encountering lesser-known writing; for instance, Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is very widely read, but his short story in the Little Black Classics, ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ is delightful and comparatively ignored.
7. Thinking, Fast and Slow
The writer of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist in the unusual position of having won the Nobel Prize for Economics, as he challenged the theory that our economic behaviour is based on rational decision-making. Thinking, Fast and Slow is summary of much of his research, presented in a very readable and accessible way.
The gist of the book is that we think in two different ways: there are the decisions we make quickly, based on instinct and emotion, and the decisions we make slowly, based on reason and logic. Kahneman’s insight appears when he points out all the different cognitive biases that arise not only from quick, emotional thinking, but also from the modes of thinking that we – mistakenly – believe are when we are working more rationally. It’s worth reading if you want not only to improve your general knowledge, but also your cognitive skills – and the intersection of psychology and economics that it represents is pretty fascinating, too.
Twitter can be a remarkable mechanism for improving your general knowledge in little 140-character chunks. There are countless Twitter accounts offering a daily fact, but these are useful for pub quizzes, amusing your friends and not much else (e.g. the QI Elves’ recent tweet: “two-thirds of an octopus’s brain is in its arms”). Other accounts provide similarly enjoyable trivia, such as @samuelpepys, which tweets from Pepys’ 1662 diary in real time, or @realtimeWWII, which does the same for the Second World War.
More valuable for the sake of improving your awareness of current affairs is to follow @BBCBreaking, which tweets breaking news. You won’t be overwhelmed by tweets – there are only a handful every day – but all the same, you’ll stay in touch with what’s happening, both in the UK and internationally. Every tweet includes a link to the full story on the BBC website, so you can find out more if you want to.
The great advantage of the BBC over other news providers – at least in the UK – is that it is required to remain entirely neutral, and is furiously scrutinised for any signs of bias. One memorable month of complaints to the BBC saw 813 people complaining of its pro-Israeli/anti-Palestinian bias – and another 938 complaining of its pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli bias. So unlike other news sources, you can be reasonably sure that the reporting you receive is objective (or at the very least, that a large number of people will complain if it isn’t).
As we hope this article has shown, there are a vast range of options out there beyond revision guides and textbooks if you want to expand your general knowledge. Beyond things you can read, there are also online courses you can take – and of course, you can explore brand-new subjects or top up your existing knowledge on one of our summer school courses.
Image credits: book shelves