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Intelligence by Osmosis – What Do I Want to Know?

I’m a big fan of Clueless About Wine, (the now seemingly defunct) 365 Cheeses, and Get Rich Slowly – websites where the author has a go at being both student and teacher by writing on a subject that interests them in order to learn more about it. They’ve inspired me: what can I do that I can write about while also learning from the experience? What do I want to know?

When you really think about that question it’s actually not as easy to answer as it first seems. Like most things, as soon as you scrape the surface it becomes more complex and confusing than you thought. Of course there’s a lot I want to know, but what do I want to know that I can learn on my own, is interesting enough to become a viable long-term/permanent fixture of my life, and – more importantly – what can I make the most use of right now and in the future?

Then the signs came.

First was Scott H Young on Lifehack claiming that “it only takes reading 10-20 books on a subject until you know more on that topic than most of the population. Read 200-300 books on a subject and you’re an expert.” Next came a BBC article quoting a governmental study where “half of men aged 16-24 haven’t read a single book in the past 12 months with some claiming to have never read a book in their life.

Let’s put these astonishing yet dubious statistics aside for now – after all, it’s not the stats that are important here: it’s the thinking behind them. And what is that? That reading gives you information and we should all be doing it. Sounds fair enough to me.

Through reading you are helping yourself communicate with every single person you come across, every single day: by reading new words in context you expand your vocabulary; by being ‘well read’ in many diverse topics you can engage more people in interesting conversation; having read ‘classic’ works you can understand what people mean when they reference them, quote them, or compare them to contemporary topics; you can, for once, answer that perennial modern question – Was the book really better than the film?; the list goes on. Let’s face it: absolutely nothing bad can come from reading a book – give or take a handful of paper-cuts in your entire life – so reading is a completely net-positive activity: for the logicians out there, this should surely be enough.

So by now I’m sure you’ve guessed it: I want to read more and write about it, right? Well, sort of. Above all I plan on changing my current reading habits: I have decided to try my hand at Intelligence by Osmosis.

Huh, what?

It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Honest. It’s just a sound-bite/buzz-word I concocted to make myself sound special when all I’ve done is make a decision to read more books written by intellectuals, whoever they may be. Generally I mean people who are well renowned in their field, rather than pretentious buggers who should know better.

I plan on reading a lot more non-fiction (or philosophical fiction) in order to learn more about specific topics, rather than spend the majority of my reading-time devouring novels – as is the norm for me. Why ‘osmosis‘? Well you see, I’m not going to read textbooks with the sole purpose of learning facts – I don’t want to actively seek knowledge; mainly because I don’t think that’ll be fun. Instead I plan to read more ‘pop-non-fiction‘: books authored by experts; on their topic of expertise; written in an engaging, interesting, and intelligent style, hopefully leading me to learn about these topics in a more enjoyable and passive manner. Hence Intelligence by Osmosis. Get it? Clever, huh? Oh OK, forget it!

The usual suspects of ‘popular science’ will be here: Noam Chomsky for linguistics, Steven Pinker and Edward Bernays for psychology, Sacks in neuroscience, Sachs in Economics (and Friedman, natch), Dawkins for Evolutionary Biology, and – of course – Hawking, Dyson, and even possibly Feynman, in theoretical physics. You get the idea.

Reading list to come soon. If you have any suggestions please, please, PLEASE let me know them – it’s not an easy list to come up with. Design, architecture, mediaevalism… anything… let me know.


  1. Andrew Smith
    Posted January 17, 2008 at 00:44 | Permalink

    Hey Lloyd.

    Great idea. With regard to “philosophical fiction” you might be interested in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s fiction, economics and philosophy all rolled into 1000 pages. It’s also not to everyone’s tastes as it’s viciously in favour if free markets and meritocracy, but I noticed Friedman on your list so I guess you’re ok with that ;) I actually downloaded it as an audio book (52 hours) from pirate bay and listened to it at work!

    Also another recommendation from me is “Commanding Heights – The Battle for the World Economy”. Not a book, but a three part documentary (again from pirate bay). It’s quite cheesy in the way that all American documentaries are, but I learned a lot from it.

    p.s. can you make your comments box bigger?

  2. Posted January 17, 2008 at 10:24 | Permalink

    I was hoping nobody would recommend Atlas Shrugged: it’s such a behemoth of a book! Although I suppose the time has now come for me to read it – it’s been about 5 years since my brother first recommended Rand to me.

    Strangely enough*, earlier this week Scott H Young (who I’ve already cited in this post) wrote an interesting review of both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shurgged, and then I Stumbled Upon Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels and non-fiction books of the 20th century (a subsidary of Random House) where these two books came first and second in the novel section, as selected by readers.

    You can count on Atlas Shrugged being present on my reading list (or ‘listening list’, if you like – the audio version sounds compelling). As for Commanding Heights I’ll download it soon, but it’ll undoubtedly be a long time ’til I watch it – I’ve got a huge folder of unwatched documentaries taking up space on my hard-drive at the moment (mostly Adam Curtis stuff).

    Thanks for the comment,

    p.s. Is this comment box better?

    *There’s a word I’m trying to remember: it’s used to describe coincidences that are not in fact coincidences at all. For example; a seemingly random series of related occurrences are noticed and I mistakenly believe them to be synchronous, when in actuality these events are quite common – it’s just I’ve noticed them in succession on this occasion and have drawn this false belief of synchronicity. It’s driving me MAD… what is this word?