John Lloyd and John Mitchinson are the authors of The Book of General Ignorance. It is based on the hit BBC2 TV show QI (short for Quite Interesting), starring Stephen Fry and Alan Davies.
1. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
A simple idea – using an examination of each of our five senses to tell the history of our species – but perfectly realised. Ackerman is a poet and naturalist: both find their outlet here. Whether she’s explaining why the Empress Josephine used violet perfume, exploring our craving for chocolate or describing the launch of a space shuttle, Ackerman changes the way we see, hear, feel and taste the world.
2. The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson
In the grand tradition of reference books as lifetime obsessions, this, the work of 30 years, reminds you of the heights that reference works can scale. An exhaustive, authoritative account of food in human culture, Davidson’s book is also written with warmth and an irresistible humour. It’s a book to get lost in: to dawdle over, to savour. The history and science of refrigeration, the sex life of eels, how to butcher a reindeer: it’s all in here.
3. Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey
Another essential tome on the QI research shelf, and the masterpiece of our best living nature writer. Again the simplicity of the concept (to describe all the native flowers, plants and trees and their cultural significance) doesn’t begin to communicate the richness within. Produced in conjunction with Common Ground, it tells us as much about ourselves as plants. Keep it by the bedside: you’ll never look at a hawthorn bush in the same way again.
4. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green
To finally kill off Johnson’s ‘harmless drudge’ calumny, here is a modern dictionary that is the work of a real human being. Green’s book goes further, deeper and wider than any other record of slang and manages to combine unimpeachable historical scholarship with the appropriate wit and raciness. (apparently ‘gooseberry bush’ was a 19th century euphemism for pubic hair). The OED of the street.
5. Labyrinths of Reason by William Poundstone
Subtitled ‘Paradoxes, Puzzles and the Frailty of Knowledge’, this is a profound and endlessly fascinating collection of philosophical experiments that leave the reader unable to settle back into old and lazy ways of thinking. Poundstone is a sceptic in the richest sense of the term and whether he’s writing on Sherlock Holmes or parallel worlds, his writing remains sparklingly clear and accessible. Dental floss for the brain.
6. Thought As A System by David Bohm
Another mind-expanding book about thinking. Bohm was a leading quantum physicist and worked on the Manhattan project. He became a close friend of the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti and this book is a record of Bohm’s seminars where he reviewed their work together. It is a genuinely visionary meeting of east and west and of philosophy with spirituality and politics. Anyone who worries about our future needs to read it.
7. The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher
Alan Fletcher, who died earlier this year, was one of Britain’s greatest graphic designers. This, his visual diary, is a modern classic. It is a great slab of a book and a constant source of inspiration, jemmied full of anecdotes, quotes, paintings, photographs and found objects. It’s as refreshing as a visit to the best art gallery or museum, and every page demonstrates how and why words and images draw power from one another.
8. Nature’s Building Blocks by John Elmsley
Can chemistry capture our imaginations? Read this book and you’ll answer with an emphatic “yes”. Elmsley’s mini-encyclopedia is an endlessly compelling tour of the periodic table. Did you know that antimony killed Mozart, that the inert gas xenon is used as the main fuel for spaceflight or that the small Swedish village of Yttersby yielded four new elements? Scholarship stuffed full of wonder.
9. Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics by Willie Donaldson
Can reference books ever be laugh-out-loud funny? Donaldson manages it here. The inventor of Henry Root has made an essential work of historical biography that just happens to be the best loo book of all time. It puts our modern obsession with celebrity in to a proper perspective. Next to ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton even the wildest excesses appear rather tame and where else would you learn that Aleister Crowley designed boomerangs as a hobby?
10. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
After a hard day in the library, there’s nothing quite like an hour’s drawing to unravel mental knots. For 20 years this book has been quietly teaching people, still terrorised by their memories of school art classes, that they can draw. It is clear, unpatronising and in the space of a day the results are remarkable. Nobody ever regrets learning to draw. A classic that actually does change your life for the better.