Septivium Learn about everything

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.


I think it is worth bearing in mind at this point what (i think) Goethe once remarked – ‘I hate everything I’ve merely learned – learning which doesn’t immediately enliven my thinking or enhance my capacity for action’

the choice of the 96 (or whatever) needs to carefully take account of the need to enliven and enhance rather than merely impart knowledge and facts

we cannot spend all our time reading either, we need to think and act

Posted by phil at 2pm, 21 February 2009 #

Oh yes, simply reading loads of books, however good they are, isn’t the be all and end all of knowledge. Discussing the reading (online or off) will help but even so this is more a way for people who are already curious about the world to learn more than they would otherwise learn.

Posted by Phil Gyford at 2pm, 21 February 2009 #

Last year I read Essential Cell Biology and Annals of the Former World (on geology), each of which took about a month, and each of which – with very different approaches – gave me foundations and a way into what are very large territories. I read a lot last year (another 102 books in addition to those), but I don’t feel I read faster than a book’s natural rhythm: a month for a text of that size feels right. There’s room alongside for books of contrasting pace and tone; maybe while you’re reading book #1 from list A, book #4 from list D is a good, non-interfering accompaniment.

Posted by Matt Webb at 7pm, 21 February 2009 #

Of course, yes — that hadn’t occurred to me; that someone very keen could tackle more than one themed list at a time. I’d just thought maybe there could be a couple of optional books, in-depth further reading on the same topic – each month for those who finish a book early.

Posted by Phil Gyford at 1pm, 22 February 2009 #

[…] 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 […]

Posted by Septivium - The reading list: 2. What subjects? at 6pm, 25 February 2009 #

[…] we’ve decided how many books to read and what topics need to be covered we need to choose the books […]

Posted by Septivium - The reading list: 3. How do we choose the books? at 4pm, 3 March 2009 #