Building a personal library for an autodidactic quiz buff
April 27, 2011 11:50 AM   Subscribe

What books can you recommend that do for their subject what 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' does for science i.e. cover a broad topic in an entertaining and engaging way which is easy for the layperson to understand? I am interested in improving my General Knowledge and want to build a little library of similar books covering topics such as art, film, geography, history, literature, music, philosophy etc.

I've already done some investigating and think these titles although not in the exact style of Bill Bryson may fit the bill: Any further recommendations or comments on the selection above welcome.
posted by wannalol to Education (35 answers total) 173 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely any of cartoonist Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guides. They are exhaustive, yet engaging. His "Cartoon History of the Universe/Modern World" series is more than one book, but he's covering from the Big Bang to 2003's Iraq War; and is one of the only "world history" books I've seen that even addresses where Chinese, MIddle Eastern, African, and MesoAmerican history fit in with Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, etc.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:59 AM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Septivium by MeFi's own fabius is about exactly this. One of the sites it links back to is this previous AskMe.
posted by penguin pie at 12:05 PM on April 27, 2011

For philosophy, Think by Simon Blackburn.

For ethics, Being Good, also by Blackburn.
posted by John Cohen at 12:05 PM on April 27, 2011

Sorry, preview fail, that's the same AskMe link John Cohen already posted.
posted by penguin pie at 12:06 PM on April 27, 2011

I really enjoyed A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. Not really funny maybe, but very lucid and engaging (They were originally delivered as lectures.)
posted by troubles at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2011

Cosmos, definitely interesting and accessible, and it goes beyond covering cosmology and space (e.g. biology,etc.)
posted by Wolfster at 12:13 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The "A Very Short Introduction" Collection by Oxford University Press
posted by fizzix at 12:58 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Story of Mankind I would consider, at this point, to be of more interest as a historical artifact than as a work of history.

I would broadly recommend The Teaching Company's courses for this purpose; the only one I wouldn't recommend is "A Brief History of the World", which I found to be a snoozer.

and, dammit, people, my paperbackswap wish list is full already!
posted by Zed at 1:29 PM on April 27, 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies for a history of medicine.

The focus is on cancer but he describes in detail the history of many medical technologies and innovations.
posted by laptolain at 1:38 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two very engaging and informative books about the workings of the modern global economy:

Oil on the Brain
The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy
posted by Corvid at 1:42 PM on April 27, 2011

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (all about conservation and population biology and island biogeography)
posted by ChuraChura at 2:15 PM on April 27, 2011

Peter Watson's The Modern Mind is a pretty good overview of intellectual history in the 20th century. It has all the shortcomings of a single-author, single-volume work of this nature, but it also gave me the names of at least a dozen authors I had never heard of before that are now on my to-read list.
posted by kingoftonga86 at 2:18 PM on April 27, 2011

I LOVE that sort of book, so I have a few too many to list. But I have a big list of recs on my Goodreads page.
posted by Caravantea at 3:02 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Several of Henry Petroski's books probably fit here. They range from looking at engineering overall, to a history of the toothpick.
posted by Su at 3:36 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely Gonick's cartoon guides. Gonick's "Cartoon Guide to Physics" explained quantum tunneling to me, something I had never before understood.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:38 PM on April 27, 2011

OK. The words "general knowledge" tells me that you probably are, indeed, a quiz buff. On the quiz buff side:

Here is an interesting thing which will probably piss my teammate off or nonpluss him:

Torrey Pines Quizbowl database. Brand spanking new. This is for devotees of "good" quizbowl. Read some questions. You will understand why "good" quizbowlers don't like Jeopardy! that much. Even middle schooler questions are hard. Try any of the "Chicago Open" tourneys for incredibly hard. Very edifying.

Simple Search will search for a subject (one single answer possible)
Browse will let you go through the tournaments, which are from all over the US, written by all sorts of schools for their tourneys
Quiz Me! will give you a question and a hidden answer
Read To Me! will give you a question, word by word. Enter in buzz into the bar and press enter when you want to buzz in for an answer.

I suggest the Collaborative Middle School Tournament, if you want someplace to start.

Disclaimer: I am, as of writing, on the Torrey Pines quizbowl team. I didn't make the website.
posted by curuinor at 3:54 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding the "Very Short Introduction" series.

There is a previous thread discussing these.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:01 PM on April 27, 2011

Here are a couple I've enjoyed:

The Book of Lost Books

The Day the Universe Changed
posted by MelanieL at 5:30 PM on April 27, 2011

Economics - The Worldly Philosophers
posted by benzenedream at 5:34 PM on April 27, 2011

John McPhee - Annals of the Former World (Geology)
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:06 PM on April 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations. There's quite a few books there that look exactly like what I'm after.

I do love quizzes curuinor - thanks for the Quizbowl database link.
posted by wannalol at 3:52 AM on April 28, 2011

The Man Who Ate Everything told me a lot about food, particularly making bread.
posted by mippy at 7:12 AM on April 28, 2011

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker is a bit dated at this point but is excellent and wide ranging.
posted by AceRock at 7:17 AM on April 28, 2011

Borges wrote "An Introduction to American Literature" and "An Introduction to English Literature." They've been out of print for years but there are used copies available online.
Both are less than 100 pages and cover the usual suspects with an unusual efficiency and depth (Shakespeare gets a whopping 4 pages), with any eye on historical context and unexpected connections. They seem designed to offer insights for anyone from high school noobs to career scholars.

some memorable highlights:
-on Blake: "He prefers vengeance to pardon, reasoning that every injured party wants to avenge himself, and if he does not, the unsatisfied desire-and this anticipates Freud-will sicken his soul."
-"Nietzsche wrote that he felt himself so close to Emerson that he did not dare praise him because it would have been like praising himself."
-a great passage on how Washington Irving stole his idea for Rip Van Winkle from Gibbon
-on Ray Bradbury: "In his work nightmares and occasionally cruelty appear, but above all sadness. The future that he anticipates has nothing utopian about it; he warns rather of dangers that humanity can and must avoid."

Also, Aaron Copland's "What to Listen for in Music" is a great Intro to classical music.
posted by minkll at 8:23 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd like to volunteer Roy Porter's (RIP) The Greatest Benefit to Mankind as the best summation of medical history. Most criticism I have heard about it is that it lacks a central thesis (unlike of his other historical accounts) but what it lacks in theory it more than makes up for in fantastic fact and insight into the bizarre history of medicine.
posted by ghostpony at 11:10 AM on April 28, 2011

History of Food by Toussaint-Samat is engaging, well-researched and often hilarious. The only drawback is that it's written by a French woman and is much given to French pronouncements about the relative quality of foods, and the inherent superiority of French taste. Which itself is pretty funny pretty regularly.
posted by klangklangston at 3:06 PM on April 28, 2011

Daniel Boorstin's "The Discoverers", "The Creators", & "The Seakers". A trilogy of books that attempt to survey the scientific, artistic and philosophic histories of humanity, respectively.
posted by cmdnc0 at 3:18 PM on April 30, 2011

Ben Schott (of the NY Times) has authored several books on a HUGE range of subjects, each one a delight to read. "Schott's Miscellanies" look at trivia covering a wide and general nature, as well as specific groupings like "Food and Drink" or "Gaming and Idling". Perfect for anyone who likes quizzes or bits of fascinating info on lots of subjects, AKA miscellany.
posted by but no cigar at 9:15 AM on May 3, 2011

Crap- here's the link I meant to add. "">
posted by but no cigar at 9:20 AM on May 3, 2011

The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie

And also of course Bryson's new book At Home.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:32 AM on May 4, 2011

A little late to the game, but I don't think anyone else has shared this link from Johns Hopkins magazine.

The Autodidact Course Catalog
posted by ncanderson42 at 5:56 AM on May 5, 2011

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