ICYMI No. 4: Books to read before university

This week’s Times Higher Education has a nice cover feature listing books recommended by various scholars to students preparing for university. More particularly, as the author of the piece, Matthew Reisz, explained to me in an email, “We are asking some leading academics to recommend a single book which they believe those towards the end of their high school career should read in order to ease their transition into university life.”

Review of Matthew Cobb's bookRecommended book. (Photo posted on Twitter by Matthew Cobb)

I’m not sure what definition of “leading academic” he was working to but my recommendation, made very much with life science students in mind (though it has broader appeal), was Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret, published in 2015. I had reviewed the book at length in the Guardian last year but a short summary of my reasons for choosing it is given in the picture above.

Anyway, the whole list is as interesting and varied at the scholars doing the choosing. There were a few titles that have long been on my to-read list – Maxwell’s On Poetry and Tartt’s The Secret History to name but two.

The piece is rounded off with a commentary by headteacher Geoff Barton who presumably knows a thing or two about the bookish interests of 18 year olds these days. He is highly skeptical of Tim Gowers’ choice of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (a title I suspect I may never tackle) but then undoes himself somewhat by recommending “anything by Malcolm Gladwell”, whose popular approach – or should that be populist – been widely criticised.

But perhaps we scholar’s shouldn’t be so picky. As I said to Reisz in the course of our interview, I was always glad to see students reading any kind of book in these internet-infested times. Even the flaws make for a good starting point for the next phase of the conversation.


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