Welcome back to the School of Penguin – the educational experience that aims to teach you via the magical medium of books. In our previous session we took an individual look at subjects such as art, maths and science. Our next series of lessons will continue to enlighten and delight, while hopefully displaying a different take on some beloved classroom essentials.
We’re beginning with history and who better to guide you through a non-fictional compendium of letters, diaries and reminiscences of the First World War than Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks. Along with Dr Hope Wolf, they have compiled A Broken World which collects together real-life experiences of the Great War into a moving, illuminating work.
The effect of World War I on the people of Britain is explored in Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War. The book showcases a country entirely altered by the conflict, which saw the introduction of societal elements (passports, voting, British Summer Time) which we now take for granted. We know Mr. Paxman can be a little stern in the classroom, but it is character building, we promise you.
Moving onto the Second World War, Thomas Harding takes one of the truly harrowing stories to emerge from that conflict and presents it as a fascinating and gripping personal drama. Hanns and Rudolf chronicles the hunt for the Auschwitz concentration camp commandant by a German Jew tasked with finding him. As the book states, “We live in an age when the waters are closing over the history of the Second World War, when we are about to lose the last remaining witnesses, when all that is left are accounts retold so many times that they have lost their original veracity.”
Time to strip down to your vest and pants as we begin a vigorous session of Physical Education, all of which you can conduct without leaving your chair! You can learn everything you need to know about ultra-running, without breaking a sweat, from the supreme purveyor of the sport Kilian Jornet. His autobiography Run or Die tries to explain why anyone in their right mind would want to run 100 miles without stopping.
Anyone who braves their Brompton and cycles into work every day should thoroughly revise The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle. This heralded and award-winning investigation into the world’s greatest cycling event hit the headlines when all the doping, disinformation and cover-ups were unearthed. “…if you want to feel what it’s like to be a bike racer, strip down to your underwear, drive your car 40 mph, and leap out the window into a pile of jagged metal.”
After all that intrigue and endurance, let’s finish with the slightly more sedate, but no less gripping world of football scouting. The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin goes behind the scenes of this slightly shadowy world, where the ability to recognise talent can be a million dollar skill.
All that exercise should have invigorated you, so I think a quick gallop through psychology is in order. How is your self-control? If it’s great, you’ll be reading this on a fancy laptop while in your mansion. If it’s terrible, you’re probably in the library waiting for your laundry to dry on the radiator. These are the conclusions of Walter Mischel in his classic The Marshmallow Test which claims that delaying gratification underpins all successful endeavours.
If you’re having difficulty understanding that previous educational nugget, you have your brain to blame. Eminent brain researcher Dick Swaab can help you navigate every neural crevice in We Are Our Brains. As he tells us, “The construction of this fantastic machine determines our potential, our limitations, and our characters; we are our brains.”
Great, so now we know that we are our brains. But where did these darn things come from? Bruce Hood explains the evolution and development of our grey matter in The Domesticated Brain, which tells us why our minds are so different from even our closest animal relatives in a language that even the dumbest primate could understand.
Your general behaviour during this school day makes it obvious that a good dose of religion is in order, so prepare yourself for some R.E. Sam Harris eloquently and persuasively explains his own stance on non-belief in Letter To A Christian Nation, which investigates why true believers, who should be loving and forgiving, are so incensed by his atheism. As he explains, “The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously intolerant of criticism.”
If you prefer your religious odysseys to have more of an epic feel, then join Simon Schama as he journeys through the The Story of the Jews. In the first volume, which spans a millennia and practically every conceivable continent, we learn that Jews lived alongside an astounding array of other peoples. As he states, “Symbiosis is a big word – it assumes true, organic and functional interdependence, which may be overstating it – but in comparison, especially, with medieval Christian societies, it is quite true that, in crucial defining ways, Jews and Muslims did indeed live with rather than just rub against each other.”
Finally, we bring R.E. to a close with a look at the history of faith and conflict in Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Spanning prehistoric times to the present day, she explains that there were a multitude of reasons why certain groups did or did not engage in violence and the perceived wisdom that religion underscored many wars of yesteryear simply isn’t true.
OK, I see you lot are getting fidgety, but before we send you home, let’s head over to the Home Economics block and see what we can cook up. Obviously the best part of any cookery lesson is plunging your hands into a mountain of squishy dough. There will be ample opportunity for this with Ruby Tandoh’s Crumb, which joyfully explores the world of baking and provides recipes for such delights as custard doughnuts and sticky toffee pudding. As Ruby explains, “Science alone won’t bake a cake. It can’t replicate the feeling of cool pastry under your fingertips or completely describe the consistency of the perfect custard.” Quite.
Great British grub is celebrated in The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food. Marcus Wareing, founder of the titular restaurant that resides within the magnificent St Pancras Renaissance Hotel applies his signature spin on comforting classics such as Yorkshire fishcakes and gingerbread pudding.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Home Ec. class at all if we didn’t send you home with a pie. Tristan Hogg and John Simon present Pieminister: A Pie For All Seasons, which abundantly illustrates their love of a good crust and exhibits creations to suit every part of the year. Expect to have a bash at pork, chorizo and prawn pie and chocolate ‘hedonist’ pie.
Congratulations! After all that you should have graduated with honours and hopefully are hurling a mortar board into the air as we speak. And if all this book learning has whetted your appetite for education and mind expansion, then we urge you to sign up for our fantastic Think Smarter newsletter which will present many more scholastic treats.