Bill Bryson – Richard Dawkins – Vincent Van Gogh

by |January 4, 2010

Useless knowledge.

I’d say my mind is more than half-full with the gunk.Snow White

I know bits and pieces of things. For instance, I know some of the names of the seven dwarfs and some of the states of the USA. I still know how to programme a video recorder (a what?). For some reason I know who Judith Krantz is (or should I say, was?) and that there was reference to her in the movie Wolf.

Why do I know these things?

No one should know who Judith Krantz is.

It is Useless Knowledge.

This summer I’m going to fight back.

I’m going to work on the theory that useful knowledge is heavier than useless knowledge and when loaded into my brain, will squash the lighter useless knowledge down like a boot stomping on a seemingly full garbage bin.

That’s the theory, now what to read?

Whatever your beliefs it is hard to deny that Science has provided humanity with some pretty useful knowledge. Geology, Astronomy, Biology, Physics and Chemistry – all have provided some good, solid, heavy and useful knowledge.

But isn’t Science a bit too boring to read?

Not if you know where to look…

I’ve come up with five books to make Science a doddle…

  1. Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything
  2. David Bodanis’ E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation
  3. Robert Winston’s Human Instinct – How Our Primeval Impulses Shape Our Modern Lives
  4. Paul Strathern’s Galileo And The Solar System (THE BIG IDEA: SCIENTISTS WHO CHANGED THE WORLD SERIES)
  5. Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow

Likewise, there is much useful knowledge in History – whether only the victors write it or not. But History can be a bit dry, so I’ve selected five easy to read general histories to start with:

  1. Robert Lacey’s Great Tales from English History
  2. Luigi Barzini’s The Italians
  3. Martin Meredith’s The State Of Africa: A History Of Fifty Years Of Independence
  4. Paul Johnson’s Heroes : From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and de Gaulle
  5. Geoffrey Blainey’s A Very Short History of the World

And even though Art looks a little bit flighty after all of this heavy Useful Knowledge we must admit that Art can express truths that seem otherwise inexpressible. That’s useful, surely…?

  1. Robert Hughes The Shock of the New : Art and the Century of Change
  2. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing
  3. Professor Gombrich The Story of Art
  4. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

And then there is Philosophy. Useful knowledge? Hmmmm… Well, there is a branch of Philosophy busily trying to prove, or was it disprove (even they have forgotten) that Philosophy is useful knowledge. While the jury is out we can read Jostein Gaarders’s Sophie’s World or Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and decide for ourselves.

That’s that then.

Hopefully, by the end of the summer, I will have subdued the monster of our age, Useless Knowledge. On hearing the word Jordan, I will recall  either of the river or the country in the Middle East, and not the illiterate, balloon bosomed strumpet who pollutes my mind’s eye presently.

New Years Resolution No. 1023 : To keep my levels of useless knowledge in check this year, I will make sure that wherever I go I will carry on my person one of Penguin’s neat little books from the Great Ideas series. They are so small and light, and ready to go when you are. This year I  will never have to read a trashy magazine in a doctor’s office, an advertisement on a train station wall or a newspaper anywhere, ever again.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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