Septivium Learn about everything

Mike Johnston’s 266 (or so) Books By Genre

Over on The Online Photographer the host Mike Johnston recently wrote about a list of books he’s been compiling for some time:

The list started when my son decided at age ten or 11 that he didn’t like to read. As an inveterate reader and bibliophile, this consternated me deeply—how do you learn about the world if you don’t read? Books are where you find most of what humans know, and have learned, and have thought; they are where, mostly, the great glorious life of the mind resides.

So, taking a cue from our epic read-aloud traversal of the Harry Potter series when my fine lad was in single digits, I got a bright idea. I figured I’d just pick a bunch of the best books I know for finding out about the world, and read them aloud to him. Who says you can only read aloud to little kids?

I had started thinking about which books would be worth reading aloud to him…and by extension which books would be worth reading if you could only read a few…

…Think about it; they had to be comprehensible to a teenager, they had to be interesting and fun to read, but I wanted them to contain some education, too—some wisdom and useful information—some measure of truth about humans and our lives in the world. My idea was, if they end up fated to be the only books he ever reads, which ones should those be?

Although Mike doesn’t share his list with us (currently at 266 titles, it’s not yet finished) the post is a pleasantly interesting ramble around the idea of what such a list means. And focusing on books that are to be read aloud is also a novel twist.

Contribute to the Cool Tools Library

Over at Cool Tools, they’re running a competition to find the most useful books about particular activities. From an earlier post:

Help us fortify our library of useful books by submitting your favorite text for a particular subject including an explanation of why you think it’s essential. We want to feature that dog-eared book that you wouldn’t lend to a friend for fear you wouldn’t get it back. It can be the best beginner’s guide, or a slightly more advanced technical manual detailing materials or techniques. If you can, please include scans of pages that we can use to illustrate the book’s content. This has been done before but never with any insight or explanation of what makes the book useful or cool.

What’s the essential book for carpenters? Metalsmiths? Landscape designers? Tailors or seamstresses? What about information design? Or sous vide? Tanning or taxidermy? Home brewing? Car repair? Bicycle frame building? The list goes on and on.

Every trade and hobby has their own bible, and we want to identify and collect them all in one place so that others may benefit.

Sounds good! So head on over there and post your suggestion in the comments, to help others and for a chance of winning a prize.

Best Intro Book

Best Intro Book is a site that suggests the best book to read on any chosen topic. It’s a nice and simple approach to a Septivium-like problem, although it seems like it’s not quite there.

There’s no information about how these recommendations have been arrived at, so it’s hard to judge how authoritative it might be. The search is also a little odd. Searching for, say, british history returns lots of books about other kinds of history, rather than saying there are no relevant results. It’s possibly more interesting to browse all the categories than try and think of things to search for.

However, it’s certainly a good starting point if you’re looking for books on a topic, but I’d like a little more information about the reasons for the choices. (via Jason Kottke)


Hey, long time no see. How are you? Learned anything new recently?

I just came across this blog post by Frank Chimero in which he praises the New York Times’ Elements of Math blog and the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (a radio series and podcast).

The latter is a bit wide-ranging to be useful for learning a particular subject (history), but the former seems like a good start at an accessible course in learning maths. It’s brief — only 15 posts — but accessibly written.

But Chimero looks for the common factors in both and comes up with a list that he thinks makes them both work:

  • Familiar subject matter. Probably addressed at some point in varying depths during schooling.
  • Seriality
  • Automated delivery, through RSS or Podcast (which is still RSS, but still).
  • Medium-format. A lengthy blog post or a 10-minute piece of audio.
  • Lush and illustrative. Strogatz [in Elements of Math] uses atypical examples and lots of imagery and some videos in his posts. A History has interviews and great storytelling, and sometimes feels almost like a Radiolab for the humanities. Oh, and that whole interactive website thingie where you get to mill about the precious artifacts.
  • The content does not exist inside a vacuum. References to the outside world are welcome and encouraged.
  • There is a specific tone to these. They feel like a kind introduction to these topics starting at square-one, but do not make the presumption you’re an idiot. Almost like a “…for Dummies” book that doesn’t think you’re a dummy.
  • The presumption is the listener or reader is absorbing these mostly out of curiosity and thus self-educating themselves in the process. So it’s educational, but there’s no homework.
  • Curated. This is the big one. The scope is limited, and the content presented in a logical order through a narrative. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. And through it all, you are guided by a story which gives a desirable linearity to the whole thing.

Chimero sees these as a new delivery format for curated educational materials — he calls them SurveyCasts — suited for periodic consumption via the internet. So that’s worth thinking about.

Five Books

It’s been very quiet round here for a while. I got to the point where I didn’t have much more to add; it felt like I’d said everything I had to say on the topic for the time being. The only next step was to do a lot of research, or talk to a lot of people, in order to create a reading list. Which I didn’t have time to do.

But I just came across Five Books and thought it was interesting enough to point at. Every day they interview an expert on a topic and they suggest five books you should read about it.

Personally, I find the interview format gets in the way a little. I’d just like the names of the books and a paragraph telling me why that book was chosen. Maybe I’m needlessly ruthless about such things, but it would be easier to browse, if less fun to read for the sake of reading.

Some of the topics seem quite up the street of Septivium, maybe Classical Music, The Atom, Thomas Keneally on Russia or John Lanchester on High Finance. Others are perhaps much more specific than Septivium would ever be: Psychoanalysing Argentina, Samuel Johnson.

The books tend toward the popular non-fiction, rather than hard-core textbooks, and some of them seem a bit more reading around a topic, rather than learning to become a real expert in it. But there’s a lot of material there, so very well worth an explore.

Ask MetaFilter’s best introductory books

When talking about the Best Books I linked to this great Ask MetaFilter thread from 2007: What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?.

The whole thing’s worth a read but a while back I decided to go through, give it a squeeze, and extract the juicy bits: the books themselves. So below is a list of books, grouped into topics, as recommended by the thread.

This doesn’t list every book mentioned. I left out some where the topic was particularly narrow and I left out others where the poster give no impression of knowing anything about the field other than having read the single book they recommend.

And, of course, this is quite an arbitrary list of subjects and books — ask the same question of a different group of people and most of the list will no doubt be different (although the books that are the same… those will be the interesting ones). Anyway, here’s the list:

Most of the links are to the pages the original Ask MetaFilter posters linked to; I’ve added some where no link was given.

Alternatives to books

Apologies for the lack of updates recently. It’s a combination of being too busy but also running out of thoughts to post… expect the pace to be slower than it was.

Although I’m still keen on the idea of finding the very best books available on a given topic I thought today I’d discuss some other ideas.


These days there’s no reason to restrict ourselves to traditional books at all. A friend suggested that an alternative to choosing a book or two on a subject could be to curate a route through Wikipedia. Once a topic has been chosen, a selection of relevant articles could be selected to cover it: a route through the millions of Wikipedia pages that would explain the subject, perhaps in increasing depth and detail. The material would be free, easily available and can be kept up to date.

It would be interesting to try this to see how comprehensive and thorough such an approach could be. I like that a traditional book is planned as a cohesive whole — it can’t cover everything but the author and editors will, ideally, cover all that needs to be covered within the book’s scope in equal detail. It is planned as a single unit and, if nothing else, will probably be more readable than a selection of disjointed Wikipedia articles.

But nonetheless, it’s a fascinating idea. Choosing which articles to include requires some knowledge of the domain, but so does choosing which books are the best ones to read.

Wikipedia books

The idea gets much more interesting given that it’s now possible to create your own custom book from Wikipedia pages. It’s extremely easy (here’s some simple instructions) to add pages to your personal list as you browse the site, re-order them, and then download a free printable PDF of your articles. You can then share the book with others so they can download it, or order a printed and bound version with even nicer formatting from PediaPress. This could be a fantastic thing for people like me who much prefer reading off paper rather than a screen.

I’ve only just discovered this and my mind is still reeling a little. I can create my own unique book on any topic under the sun, with any combination of chapters, with just a few clicks. It’s amazing.

Other free texts

It looks like there are some places aiming to create free books on specific topics. Wikibooks “is a Wikimedia community for creating a free library of educational textbooks that anyone can edit.” A quick scout around it shows that most of the books are incomplete and I’m not sure how actively things are progressing. It’s also not clear how the content would differ from a curated route through Wikipedia. But something to keep an eye on.

I recently also came across Open College Textbooks which aims to provide text books written by “experts” that are free to read online. It may not be much immediate use to Septivium’s project — there’s a limite range of topics and very few books are near finished yet — but it’s still an interesting development.

I’d be interested to know what you think bout the Wikipedia vs traditional books idea, and whether you have other ideas for alternative sources of knowledge.

The reading list: 3. How do we choose the books?

Once we’ve decided how many books to read and what topics need to be covered we need to choose the books themselves.

I touched on this problem in an earlier post about Best Books. We want to find the very best books on a particular topic. Ideally we need to find people who are widely read in a subject and can answer a question like “If I’m going to read three books about religion, what are they?” There is no single correct answer to such a question.

If we couldn’t find experts in every field there might be other ways of compiling lists of books. It may simply involve a lot of research to find what books are widely read and recommended. Or maybe there’s a way of compiling the reading lists for university courses and finding which books are the most popular for each subject (this is almost a website in itself…).

A related question is what level of education the books should be pitched at. Previously I linked to John Baez’s How to Learn Math and Physics page which includes a lot of recommended books. I studied maths until I was 18 but that was twenty years ago and it sounds like even the most introductory texts there would be hard going.

Maybe a good rule of thumb would be that books should be accessible to someone who’s educated to the equivalent of degree level but in a completely unrelated subject. Someone who’s ready to learn, has general intelligence, but hasn’t studied the subject in hand since they were in their mid-teens (which might be a long time ago).

Any thoughts on any of this, related to this or earlier posts, are more than welcome.

The reading list: 2. What subjects?

After trying to decide how many books to read, how do we divide them up between subjects? What needs to be covered in order to cover everything in the world ever as best we can?

There is no correct answer to this and it could cause arguments that will never end. I barely know where to begin so let’s look at what’s taught in schools. Here’s the list of subjects taught in UK schools to 11-16 year olds:

I’m not sure that really helps. But it does make clear that Septivium’s reading list can’t teach us everything. Some things — Art, Languages, Music, PE, Science — require varying degrees of practical skills that we’re not going to learn from books. We can learn some Art History but we’re not going to learn to paint. We can learn about physics but we’re not going to be doing experiments. We can learn about the human body but we’re not going to schedule in some football.

So what can we learn? I may be wrong, but I think we’ll need to state some biases from the start. For example, while I want to learn about the history of the whole world, I’m probably more biased towards the history of Europe and the United States. I could imagine including a book that covers, say, the history of America, or Europe since 1945, but not one solely about the history of Botswana (sorry Botswanans, nothing personal).

Rather than just say “I have no idea about this, what do you think?” it might be more useful to have a starting point to rip apart and change. So, here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head first draft of a list of subjects:

Plenty of biases in there I’m sure. Not least hidden under “Literature” — I’m assuming this would mostly be English-language, although I see no reason why we couldn’t provide alternatives for people who want to study literature in other languages.

All of these topics should be broken down into smaller chunks, although many I don’t know well enough to know how. There are other topics missing. The implied structure could be different. We haven’t even begun to work out how to divide the total number of books between the topics.

That’s enough from me for now. I’d love to know (a) if you know of any useful examples of reading lists or topic lists that try to cover everything or (b) what changes you’d make to my sacrificial list above.

I’ve set up a wiki for this and future things. Feel free to edit the subject list there or post a comment below. (I’ve closed the wiki due to all the spam, sorry.) Thanks.

The reading list: 1. How many books?

There are perhaps three main questions to answer when creating Septivium’s reading list, a list of books to give someone a well-rounded education about everything:

  1. How many books do we need in order to cover “everything”?
  2. How do we choose what subjects are covered and in what proportions?
  3. How do we choose the books?

Today I’m going to look at the first of these. From this point on the haziness of my grand plan becomes apparent and I become increasingly grateful for any ideas from you…

I’ve pondered the question of “How many books do we need to learn about everything?” And you know what the answer is? It’s 96.

OK, there is no correct answer. You could read a single book for a reasonable overview. Or you could read a different book every day for the rest of your life and you’d keep finding gaps to fill in your knowledge.

But we need an answer even if there’s no single correct answer.

The first variable to set is how quickly readers should be expected to complete a book. We should be able to discuss books as we go, which means everyone reading at the same pace, like a book club. Which means we need to be realistic about how quickly books can be read. While some people could get through a few books a week others, with busy lives and/or slow reading speeds (that’s me), could take several months to finish a hefty volume.

I reckon that an aim of reading one book a month is reasonable. Some books will be shorter and easier than others but this seems like a manageable rate. It would require some commitment to keep up the pace but should also mean no one needs to disrupt their life too much to keep up. Also, tying the pace to a month is easy to remember: “The 25th already!? I’d better do some reading.”

Maybe there could be optional extra books for those speedy readers who find themselves twiddling their thumbs after a week.

So, this rate of a book a month has an effect on how many books will be in the entire list. Anyone starting the list should be able to imagine finishing it, and at twelve books a year I think that restricts the length a little — we don’t want people imagining the rest of their lives will be filled with this project.

To cut to the chase, here’s my current thinking. Based almost arbitrarily on reading about the septivium I thought that seven years, or a total of 96 books, would be a good total length.

I know, it sounds a lot doesn’t it. And maybe, as someone who took on an almost decade long project, I’ve gone too far. I think it would have to be broken into small chunks of maybe six months or a year each focused reasonably self-contained topics so that someone could say “This year I’m going to read twelve books on science.” Maybe by December they’ve had enough and that’s as far as they go, or they want to take a break for a bit. Fair enough. Or maybe they think “That was great, next year I’ll read about… history!”

So how does that sound? Seven lists of a dozen books each. Or maybe fourteen lists of six books each. Perhaps with optional extra books for the super keen. Learn about everything one small chunk at a time.

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