Septivium Learn about everything

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.


Tried adding this to your topic list but couldn’t figure out how to, do I need a password?

Posted by phil at 7pm, 25 February 2009 #

I think there is a case for ‘how to’ books in a couple of areas you dismissed as unable to teach. For example, what is the ultimate book on how to draw? The best book on how to play football (or, perhaps, exercise generally, or think about exercise – sports psychology). These are areas where I have learnt a lot from books that I’ve then put into practice – and there are some gems and some duds out there.

Posted by Jemima at 9am, 26 February 2009 #

Phil: Were you unable to click the Edit link? I noticed a problem in Safari that stopped most of those links being clickable, which I’ve now fixed. Otherwise, it should work fine without a password. Let me know how you get on.

Jemima: I didn’t mean to dismiss those fields entirely. There’s still plenty that can be learned from books but it’s impossible to become good at drawing or football solely by reading books. Whereas you could be “good at” history by reading books (although discussing it with others and doing research would probably make you even “better”). So, yes, it would be nice if such fields are covered, to give some general knowledge about them, but we shouldn’t pretend we’re going to gain practical skills.

Posted by Phil Gyford at 10am, 26 February 2009 #

You’re right about literature.

It’s very easy to be insular literature wise. A good ‘broad’ category which would give a patchwork quilt of excellent world literature would be “Commonwealth literature”, covering everything from Canada to Ghana. There’s some extremely interesting African literature available in translation, and sometimes if you were to take an African English writer like Ben Okri, or some of the themes pervading toni Morrison’s books, they’re only really understandable in a 3D way, having a bit of grounding in African literature.

I am a complete failure with Asian literature, with exception obviously of Russian (I had a dream the other day that recalled “Crime and Punishment” in theme and content, weirdly). Australian isn’t mentioned (perhaps you should amend your list to say (a) Translated in to English (b) Written in English language ?

The other thought was that perhaps you should break down Philosophy slightly – as a blanket term it covers a multitude of sins. The history of Philosophy is the history of human retained thought. Western, or Eastern? Ancient, or Modern? Logic, or Ethics?

Under social sciences I would also put Feminism. If I can put my card carrying F word hat on for a mo, the list you’ve got there could be argued to be the history of the Patriachy! An over simplification, but not an entirely unwarranted one.

Posted by Cait at 1pm, 26 February 2009 #

I’m sure Philosophy should be broken down more — as should everything — but I don’t know enough to know how!

Posted by Phil Gyford at 3pm, 26 February 2009 #

Hi Phil,

Thanks for Septivium! I’m enjoying your thoughts so far, and wonder how Open Library might support your endeavours. We’re at if you haven’t seen us yet.

On reading your quest to work out what subjects might be useful to start with, I wondered if you’d see the first edition of Dewey’s remarkable classification system, “A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library”:

Probably different than choosing which subjects you’d like to cover in your list, but an interesting comparison nonetheless.

Posted by George Oates at 7pm, 5 July 2009 #

Hi George,

I’m not sure how Open Library could help, as the big stumbling block is working out how to choose the subjects and/or relevant books. But if you have any ideas, do let me know!

Despite, or maybe because of, Dewey’s quirks I do have a big soft spot for the system. Maybe even more so as it becomes increasingly anacronistic, relative to how we find books online. Many years ago my Saturday job was in a library so I can still remember some of the Dewey classification numbers for certain subjects!

Posted by Phil Gyford at 12pm, 6 July 2009 #