Tag Archives: books

How to Read a Book

Source: Livinganawesomelife.com

Reading is the key to developing a comprehensive understanding of any subject by yourself. By the end of Year 12, you’ll need to have mastered the skills of independent readingnote-taking, and asking for help. Today, we’ll focus on the first of those key skills: independent reading.

There are three main types of reading: inspectional, analytical and synoptical reading. How you read depends on your purpose for reading.

1) News articles require Inspectional Reading

In a magazine or academic journal, skim over the headlines and pictures to find articles that might interest you. I recommend reading New Scientist as an excellent source of up-to-date science news. I used to read this magazine each morning before reading the day’s textbook chapter(s) while I was a student in Cambridge. Inspectional reading involves skim-reading then re-reading if the article is particularly relevant to you. You might even want to cut it out and keep it for future reference.

2) Your Chemistry textbook requires Analytical Reading

The key to analytical reading is to make annotations and excellent notes. If you’ve purchased a printed copy of the book, then you’ve purchased the right to annotate that book with ink, Post-it Notes® and highlighters. In difficult/technical sections of the book (such as the introduction page to NMR spectroscopy in Heinemann Chemistry 2), summarise each paragraph in 7 words or fewer in the margin. Transfer your notes to A4, lined paper and file your notes in an organised way. Note-making is the best way to learn while you read a technically difficult text such as your Chemistry textbook.

3) When you have an assignment due, you’ll need to do a Synoptical Reading of your source materials

When you need to build a bibliography, you’ll need to glean pieces of information from many sources and summarise them into your own words. You’ll also need to keep a properly-formatted references list to append to your assignment. You can read the entire text or just relevant parts – but make sure your reading is varied. Read books or articles from the references sections of books that are particularly relevant to your assignment. When writing your essay, much of the structure of the essay will ‘magically’ emerge when you link together in a logical way the dozens of sentence-long summaries that you created during your synoptical reading.

How do you read?

Is there a special reading/note-taking technique that works well for you? Do you make flashcards or mind maps? Let us know in the comments section below.

How to use a Textbook: 6 Rules to Follow

VCE Chemistry annotated textbook Heinemann
My own Year 12 Chemistry textbook. Does yours look like this?

Anyone who’s spent time in a classroom knows that in any academic subject, the student who reads the textbook several times from cover to cover and makes colourful, organised notes all over it is going to excel in examinations. For this reason, I’ve been trying to get students reading their textbooks (and making great notes on them) almost as long as I’ve been teaching (since 2006). Glancing your eyes over the words in a textbook isn’t enough. How should you use a textbook properly, in any subject? There are six rules you need to follow.

1. Make notes all over your textbook

The signs of a well-used textbook are obvious: it should be inked heavily with a student’s own notes, the cover should be wrinkled and torn, and there should be at least three different brands of sticky tape holding the book together. It should flex open at 180 degrees with ease, exposing the sturdy threads of spine that prevent it from falling apart. Textbooks are designed to be used! A pristine textbook is the hallmark of a student who doesn’t study. Treat your textbook as your own, and prove that you’ve read it by plastering it with your own notes. Taking notes while you read has been proven to increase comprehension levels by up to 50%… and it makes revising much easier, too. (Just re-read your notes!) What do great textbook notes look like? In all the important sections (and that’s most sections), you should draw a horizontal line in the margin to separate each paragraph. Each paragraph should be summarised in eight words or fewer in the resulting spaces. (See next week’s post on How to Make Great Notes.)

2. Translate key words in your textbook

If you’re studying in a second language, or if you speak more than one language, it will help you to translate key terms into your first language in your textbook. Circle important new words and phrases in the textbook and write the words in your first language beside them.

3. Build vocabulary lists & concept lists based on what you read in the textbook

Vocabulary lists need to contain three things: the word in English, the definition in English and the word in your first language (if not English). Vocabulary lists relevant to the topic you’re studying need to be placed large in prominent places: your bedroom wall (if you’re a student) or on the classroom wall (if you’re a teacher). Build word lists and learn these vocabulary lists using spaced repetition software such as Pleco for iOS or ProVoc for Mac. These apps will quiz you on the vocabulary you’ve been reading at exactly the best time-intervals to ensure you beat the famous “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve”!

4. Highlight your textbook carefully

Highlight important concepts, but don’t go overboard. If you highlight everything, nothing stands out! Use your highlighter and your pen in approximately a 1:1 ratio: they should occupy approximately the same surface area on each page. The best use of a highlighter is to highlight not only key sentences in the book, but also to highlight important notes and summaries that you’ve made yourself. Key things to highlight in a Chemistry textbook, for example:

  • Formulae that need to be learned (lead-acid battery half-equations)
  • Ions (their names, formulae, charges and colours)
  • Acronyms and mnemonics that you’ve created from bullet lists
  • Phrases that examiners really care about (“carbon-carbon double bonds” and “alternative reaction pathway”, for example)

5. Make your own notes on paper using the textbook and external sources

Learning is consolidated further in your mind when you translate the notes you made in the textbook margins to make your own hand-written notes on paper. Make a first set of notes on A4 paper. Use a logical colour scheme and concise language and diagrams to consolidate the key information. Use the textbook as the basis for at least 90% for your notes, but also add information (no more than 10%) from other textbooks, news articles and examiners’ reports. Keep your notes safe, organised and visible. Hand-write your notes! Research has shown that people consolidate much more of the information they’ve read into their long-term memory when they hand-write their notes than when they use a computer to type them up. There are several theories that attempt to explain why: the most convincing of these are that computers can be distracting, that typing requires less hand-to-eye coordination than writing, and that typing is slower than writing (if we include colours, diagrams and large amounts of superscript, subscript and the special symbols required for Chemistry). Always hand-write your notes.

6. Always know the textbook references for your current topic of study

Not all teachers give textbook references for the topics they’re teaching in class. But knowing the textbook reference is crucial if students want to review what they’ve learned after the lesson. How can you make your own notes or do further reading if you don’t have a textbook reference? Even worse, many teachers provide students with their own notes, summaries or PowerPoint slides that accompany a lesson. I’m strongly against this. Learning happens in the act of taking great notes, and a teacher who gives their students pre-made notes is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn.

Learning happens in the act of taking notes, and a teacher who gives their students pre-made notes is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn.

If your teacher gives you notes or PowerPoint slides, don’t use them. Kindly ask your teacher for a textbook reference and make your own notes directly from the textbook instead. The textbook will always be more coherent, more comprehensive and more correct than any notes that your teacher distributes in class. For more information, watch this 10-minute clip from ThePenguinProf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOlJiMKEjpY

Book: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Originally written for Dark Matter Fanzine

High-class tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres
392 pages, ★★★★★

Adam Robots is a collection of science fiction short stories. It’s a five-star tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres. It was perfect  for a novice sci-fi reader like me because it allowed me to discover which sci-fi sub-genres I enjoy reading the most.

By far the best story in this book was ‘Thrownness’, a twist on Groundhog Day. The title, ‘Thrownness’, is a rough translation of the German word “Geworfenheit”, which is a philosophical term used to describe the feelings people have about a past that is neither deterministic nor chosen. Author Adam Roberts brings this bizarre abstract concept to life by making the protagonist’s world ‘reset’ itself every 70 hours. After a ‘reset’, all the characters go back to where they were 70 hours ago and start going about the same 3-day routine in perfect repetition. The only difference between each cycle is what the protagonist chooses to do (his location and thoughts are not reset each time). He starts off well-behaved, but soon learns that the only way to survive is to rob, cheat and steal. (He steals from the same people in each 3-day cycle but his ‘crimes’ are forgotten after 3 days!) There’s definitely an element of dark, understated humour that’s unmistakably British underlying this short story.

‘Thrownness’ also makes a political point about incarceration and the notorious problem of reoffending. The situation, not the man himself, propelled the protagonist’s downward spiral. With no roots and no long-term direction in his life, he very quickly resorts to crime.

‘Shall I Tell You the Problem With Time Travel?’ was another one of my favourite stories in this book. Protagonist Professor Bradley, a scientist developing time travel in the near future, has realised that every time travel attempt causes a giant explosion at the intended time and place of arrival. He also notes that he can only travel into the past—not into the future. I won’t give anything away here, but the story is very cleverly-written and not contradicted by present-day scientific theories, which is important for me.

Reality is very important for me in books, which is why I read so much non-fiction. I’m not a fan of the extremely farfetched sub-genres in sci-fi—complicated alien civilisations and the like, or artificial intelligence—and I’m put off by scientific impossibility. I learned all this by reading Adam Robots. I learned that I enjoy reading sci-fi that’s set either in a believable future, or in a slightly altered present, and Adam Robots gave me a very generous serving of both. ‘The Time Telephone’ and ‘A Prison Term of A Thousand Years’ in this book were also very good.

Recommended for people who want to get more into reading sci-fi. Five out of five stars. ★★★★★

Book: Genetic Modification in Food

Genetic Modification in Food

Balanced introduction to GM foods for absolute beginners.
<100 pages, ★★★★★

Quick review today. I spent a long time making a table of organic compounds and their smells (view it here).

This book, Genetic Modification in Food, it’s one of the few books that succeeds in conveying a controversial scientific issue to the public while maintaining balance and accuracy. It’s suitable for readers who know nothing about science at all. It appeals to people who are concerned (with good reason) after reading/hearing/seeing reports about GM crops in the news. The concerned British public, for whom this book was intended, has an unusually high resistance to GM foods—so this book, which is free from ‘pro-green’ or ‘pro-science’ extremism, is a welcome addition to the pop-sci literature mix. ★★★★★

Book: The Night Guest

The Night Guest Book Cover

Originally posted on Dark Matter Fanzine

Extremely dark and bitchy.
256 pages, ★★

The Night Guest is the story of a 75-year-old widow who has a government carer arrive unexpectedly to take full-time care of her. The widow sadly declines into dementia throughout the novel and becomes increasingly dependent on her carer. However, not everything is as it seems. As you progress through this book, you’ll find yourself asking yourself what’s real and what’s not: is Freda (the carer) really a government worker? Does Ruth (the widow) really have dementia? Is Freda taking advantage of Ruth?

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, is darker than anyone but the author could have imagined. Not only is it dark, but its characters are bitchy and unpleasant and I didn’t learn anything positive from this book. I didn’t even enjoy it. Some reviewers have commended the author for creating these nasty characters and the book’s unpredictable plot in a debut novel, but personally, I think the author’s crossed a line of “negativity” and this book doesn’t deserve any credit.

There are no men in this book (not in major roles, anyway), which instantly throws its character cast off balance. What bothers me more is that nothing positive happens in this book from start to finish. The Night Guest is a gloomy, uninspiring novel with a small number of silently vindictive female characters and absolutely no point to it. I learned nothing, I didn’t enjoy it, and I would have stopped reading after 80 pages if I weren’t obliged to review it.

The “suspense” that some newspaper reviews have written about is actually just “boredom”. The “darkness” is actually “bitchiness” and the “horror” is more sickening than frightening. The relationships between all the characters are covertly abusive and become more so as you read on. This novel has no likeable characters.

So who might enjoy this book? People who enjoy horror movies, possibly? Fortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I can only give it two stars. ★★

Book: Information Graphics (Taschen)

Information Graphics

Giant trilingual compilation tome of graphics by various international artists.
5.0 kilograms, 

I’m a visual learner and a huge fan of data visualisation. I’m not very good at visualising data by myself (my own efforts are posted here), but I do appreciate the beauty and apparent simplicity of other people’s finished results. The surge in data visualisations we’ve seen in recent years is owed to two things: an overwhelming amount of data made available by the internet; and vast amounts of computing power available to analyse this data in great depth. We can now analyse entire genomes, millions of ‘tweets’, or entire books and their full revision histories relatively quickly to make meaningful conclusions.

All data visualisations can be judged by their beauty, utility and complexity. Very few of the examples in this book hit all three of those targets. The cover image, for example, is beautiful and complicated but useless. The “Earth history” timeline on page 257 is beautiful and useful but too simple. The “So You Need a Typeface” graphic (below) is useful and complex, but its scrambled layout makes it look bland and difficult to read.


That said, this is an art book, and I’m not supposed to ‘like’ everything in it. Considering that art’s purpose is to make people think, then this book succeeds spectacularly. It’s multi-lingual (written in English, French, German, Russian and others—and no particular language dominates the book), so I’m left guessing most of its content. I wasn’t even sure how to read this book: the book itself is too large to open up on my desk, doesn’t fit in my bag, doesn’t fit in one hand, is too cumbersome to take outside and would be exhausting to read in bed. Closed, it’s the size of a pillow! Its intended audience probably reads it on giant artists’ drawing tables—I had to read it on the floor.

I didn’t learn much content from this book. There’s no story, no chapters or sections and the whole book lacks organisation. Many of the fonts are illegibly small, and most of the captions are uninformative (or in foreign languages), which implies that I’m actually not supposed to learn anything—just appreciate the pretty aesthetics.

What I did learn, however, was that I had a particular taste in data visualisations—I like them useful, beautiful and complicated. Thankfully, this book’s massive size meant that there were still dozens of graphics (in 500 pages) that I actually really liked. Recommended for fans of graphic design. 


Book: IELTS to Success

IELTS for Success

Great IELTS advice for native speakers of English
184 pages, ★

I took IELTS recently and achieved the highest grade, band 9. IELTS is the examination system by which Australia (and many other countries) tests the English level of new immigrants.

Scores range from band 1 to band 9. Someone at band 4 is a “limited user”, band 7 is “very good”, and band 9 is “expert”. Band 7 is usually high enough to enter most professions—however, the bar is being raised to band 8 in many industries.

Most IELTS books cater to the lower bands—4, 5 and 6, across which, you can make improvements simply by learning new vocabulary and making fewer grammar mistakes. I used to teach IELTS to this category of students. Many of the other IELTS books out there will ask you to practice prepositions, spelling, word lists and simple punctuation page after page. Most native speakers, however, don’t need that kind of practice.

IELTS for Success aims to raise your score from 7 to 9, which is much more difficult to do. Only knowledge of the IELTS test can do this. The book tells you the marking criteria and the style of writing the examiners are looking for—after which, native English speakers can achieve a band 9 score.

The writing section is the trickiest. IELTS examiners are looking for a very particular style of essay. A good IELTS essay describes the merits of both sides of a given argument before reaching a wishy-washy conclusion, in which you’re allowed to sit on the fence. TOEFL, however, which is used in the United States, asks for a strongly-opinionated, one-sided argument that merely acknowledges the counterargument in no more than one sentence. IELTS for Success tells you all these tips and more.

IELTS for Success is the best IELTS book that’s aimed at native speakers.  It gives you “knowledge of the test”, as I call it, without the mid-level English practice. 

Book: Please Stop Laughing at Me

Please Stop Laughing at Me
Please Stop Laughing at Me

Bad inspiration for people struggling with bullying.
304 pages, ★★★

Please Stop Laughing at Me is an autobiographical story loaded with pained descriptions about how horrible it is to be bullied. These passages would resonate with some kids and grip their attention, which is a shame because the author provides some irresponsible solutions towards the end of the book.

I have two major problems with this book.

First, the protagonist is in a very privileged position. She’s fortunate enough to have two parents who care about her deeply. She’s quite well-off, and she’s able to change schools when the social environment at one school gets out of hand. Since many bullied kids are from deprived social backgrounds, how can this girl’s exotic holidays and expensive surgery (more on that later) inspire the majority of those struggling with bullying to find a way out? Bullied kids reading this book might get the erroneous impression that friends and happiness depend on having lots of money. They will be disappointed.

Second, the author places a large amount of emphasis on how corrective surgery on her breasts solved her bullying problem. She went against doctors’ advice and had this surgery too young. Doesn’t this teach kids to defy authority and give in to peer pressure? And what about those kids who are bullied despite looking ‘normal’? How can surgery ‘correct’ them? This books fails to illustrate how resisting bullies requires being mentally strong—not physically “perfect”.

In conclusion, Please Stop Laughing at Me tells children that money and breasts make you happy and popular! While the author’s journey was certainly a difficult one, it’s not a journey than can—or should—inspire young people. Be sure to criticise this book with any child who’s read it. ★★★

Book: The Saber-Tooth Curriculum

I just got married! I also just finished reading The Saber Tooth Curriculum

The Saber-Tooth Curriculum
The Saber-Tooth Curriculum

Classic satire full of good quotes. Subject of running jokes since 1939.
139 pages, ★★★★★

The Saber-Tooth Curriculum is a collection of seven short, satirical stories that illustrate some quirky aspects of our education system. The same Stone Age society is used as a metaphor for our modern world throughout.

Allusion to the modern world is thinly-veiled. This Stone Age society has middle schools, universities, education officials, investors, and even a national curriculum. Only humour—including humorous names of people and school subjects—separates this Stone Age society from reality.

The main messages in this book’s seven stories are:

  1. The scientific method has made absurd yet un-disprovable theories become accepted in education; (See this example.)
  2. Schools teach an outdated set of skills to students;
  3. School reform meets resistance from all angles;
  4. Universities dictate school curricula with lofty, academic content and overcomplicate education with ‘credits’, ‘units’ and rules on ‘pre-requisites’;
  5. Unions control education for the short-term benefit of society;
  6. When young people learn outdated skills, they can’t find meaningful work;
  7. All of this is extremely difficult to change.

I agree with most of these points. After graduation from Cambridge during the economic crisis with no job, no practical skills and no employers even remotely interested in hiring biology graduates, I felt I’d been cheated into some massive con. Unlike history or art, biology isn’t particularly interesting to other people, either. I would love to see curricula become more relevant to society than they are today—we’d have a more interesting, more employable crop of graduates in years to come.

Part II, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, is the most famous story in this book. In synopsis, a cave-dwelling society refuses to alter its school curricula despite an impending ice age which completely redefines the skills required in the workplace. This story highlights how schools still teach swathes of irrelevant knowledge (too much maths, too much chemistry) and neglect the useful skills to the detriment of everyone (reading, writing, health, religion, and more).

The most incredible thing about this book is that it’s still relevant 70 years after being written! As long as school curricula are playing catch-up with society, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum will stay relevant. Recommended for anyone who went to university. ★★★★★

Book: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea
Author Greg Mortenson builds schools on challenging ground in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region.

Sounds like a Bible story. Heroic.
349 pages, ★★★★

Greg Mortenson, a nurse by profession and avid mountaineer from the United States, built over 50 schools, mostly for girls, in the challenging Afghanistan/Pakistan border region (Af-Pak).

Every step of this project was difficult. Building materials are hard to find and even harder to transport (much of the timber was lugged up a mountain by hand). Local leaders were averse to educating girls (and Mortenson intended to prioritise girls in his schools); and regular attacks between ethnic groups kept everyone on edge. Despite getting lost, kidnapped, and his passport destroyed, he nonetheless succeeded spectacularly.

Three Cups of Tea feels like an adventure novel throughout. It opens with a lucky plane landing, where the pilot uses a shop-bought GPS navigation system to determine whether they’re heading the right way (and they’re not—they do an about turn and land the plane with seemingly no fuel). Later, on page 179, Mortenson shares his medical experience to save the life of both a new-born baby and its mother in what the locals described as a ‘miracle’. Greg’s remarkable story is written in the third person, which makes it feel like an Indiana Jones adventure story. Some of Mortenson’s achievements even feel Biblical in proportion. (Indeed, many have pipped him for a future Nobel Peace Prize.)

Humor is added occasionally. “The British must have had a sense of humour to draw a border across an indefensible wasteland [Af-Pak], Mortenson thought” (page 159). The part where the guard destroyed Mortenson’s passport (“immediately rendering the entire document useless”) is also written with humour.

Jon Krakauer wrote a book exposing “lies and exaggerations” from Three Cups of Tea called Three Cups of Deceit. This is interesting because Three Cups of Tea describes Jon Krakauer as one of the biggest financial supporters of Mortenson’s schools project. He organised fundraising events and sold $25 tickets. Why Krakauer then wrote a book criticising Mortenson’s approach remains a mystery to me. I’ll have to read it and find out. ★★★★

Book: Information

Information: The New Language of Science
Info about info. That’s all there is.

Never really takes off.
272 pages, ★

Information lacks relevance throughout. I was asking, “What’s the point of this book?” somewhere around the middle. I only finished this book because I was in a hospital waiting room and found it slightly more entertaining than watching kindergarten programmes on the overhead TV.

I lost interest completely at this point:

“Imagine twisting the beads on your team’s necklace and watching the corresponding beads on the other team’s necklace twist in the opposite direction. Now imagine shattering that necklace and asking them what order the beads were in by asking them to re-twist them. Of course, the only beads whose directions can’t be communicated are the ones attached to the clasp. That’s basically Quantum Theory.”

Paraphrased from page two-hundred-and-something

This drivel disappoints me. I expect PopSci (that’s Popular Science) to bridge the gap between theory and application, thus bringing researchers closer to the public. Unfortunately, this book pushes them further apart.

This is a shame, because there’s some fascinating research being done in the field of Information Theory:

  • Enigma machines (WW2)
  • earthquake prediction
  • election fraud
  • stock market fluctuations
  • gambling cheats
  • evolution of religion
  • music analysis
  • and more…

This book fails to communicate all of this amazing stuff.

Information needs to be edited by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki to make it relevant and fun. I sincerely hope that this book isn’t the “new language of science” as its subtitle claims. ★

Book: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational
Squiggles. Soft fonts and soft colour schemes represent the soft, balanced tone of the author very well.

A happy investigation into life’s tiny decisions. A classic.
280 pages, ★★★★

The author, Dan Ariely, survived an explosion when he was 18. Lying on his hospital bed, his body covered in burns, he began to contemplate the irrationality of what had just happened. This accident spawned a fascination with irrationality—out of which, this Predictably Irrational was born.

Chapter 1 explains how people think in relative, not absolute, terms. Not only our senses, but also our perception of value, is relative. Expensive upgrades (like insurance and optional extras) only seem worthwhile when you’re buying something even more expensive. (A $330 pasta machine seems cheap when compared with a $1000 KitchenAid, but not on its own.)

Chapters 5 and 6 talk about self-control. Our aroused selves (chapter 5) and our future selves (chapter 6) don’t listen to what our present selves are saying. This explains why people sometimes don’t use condoms, don’t save for the future, and don’t do their homework on time, even when students are allowed to create their own deadlines. (Even I do it, too—I didn’t write my promised Chinese Sencha review yesterday.)

Chapter 8 ventures into economics. I like how Dan Ariely comments not only on the experimental psychology aspects (where participants click coloured doors on a computer in an experiment), but also on what these experiments teach us about real-life situations as well (he argues in favour of long-term relationships and marriage, which I like). I find this comforting to read. When I agree with an author’s moral standing, I’ll enjoy reading their books more, and probably learn more as well. (In contrast, see my unflattering reviews of such morally-bankrupt stories as I Love DollarsHocus Pocus and The Time Traveller’s Wife.)

Chapters 9 and 10 talk about appearances. A big, red, placebo pill priced at $2.50 works better than a small, white placebo pill priced at 10 cents. Coca-cola tastes better than Pepsi, but only if you’re told what you’re drinking. Likewise, the idea that “top universities” give you a “top-notch education” is largely based on fantasy. I found that out myself.

Finally, chapters 11 to 13 are really summaries. I enjoyed them, yet skimmed them.

Dan Ariely is an excellent science communicator. I am very comfortable reading an author who writes with such politeness and balance (sometimes, he even adds concluding sentences that ward off critics—in the style of “don’t get me wrong”). He has a rare ability to deliver the outcomes of scientific research in clear, easy-to-understand language. He illustrates each chapter with poignant examples, including some from his own life—but only when they are most appropriate. The Jobst suit example served perfectly in chapter 10.

Predictably Irrational is a guide to the tiny decisions in life; a piecemeal, micro-bible, and at the same time, light, interesting and balanced to read. ★★★★

Book: Presentation Skills for Students

Presentation Skills for Students

If monkey see, monkey do, then don’t read this book.
139 pages, ★

I learn by seeing and doing. I copy. Therefore, if a teacher uses a bullet lists on a PowerPoint presentation to tell me how to deliver an eloquent, engaging speech, then I’m really not going to learn. Actually, all I’d learn is how not to speak.

Presentation Skills for Students is a written embodiment of the PowerPoint bullet-list culture that most of us detest. This book tells me to speak up, project my voice, choose suitable fonts, colours and graphics, blah blah blah, but doesn’t deliver the information in a way that I find in any way engaging: it’s littered with dull, bulleted lists and emphasises theory over practice, which ironically contradicts the book’s purpose—to train good speakers.

Watch Obama’s speeches if you want to improve your speaking skills. Here’s an excellent one below. Learn from the best!

If you still insist on learning the theory, then watch this TED video as well, called “Talk Nerdy To Me”.

Presentation Skills for Students reminds me of the Fight Club corporate meeting scene with Microsoft (or in the film, a generic company), where the protagonist’s boss tinkers with the colours of his slides—and the leader replies, “efficiency is key, people”. The best part is that the author, not the character, is being ironic. Presentation Skills for Students is an equally pointless display of procrastination. Watch Obama instead. ★★

Book: The Power of Happiness: A Comprehensive Guide to Daily Joy and Well-Being

Yellow is a happy colour. Think of Bruno Mars’ and Jack Johnson’s album covers. This yellow-covered ebook brightened my day.

All-rounded day-course syllabus in happiness—with homework!
192 estimated pages, ★

The Power of Happiness is excellent value. For $5, I got an ebook, a 32-page PDF workbook, and a series of timely email updates from the author. Compare this $5 ebook package to a day-long coaching seminar, which could set you back $200 or more and cover about the same amount of material (with refreshments included). If you motivate yourself to do the assignments at home (and make your own tea), you could feel a lot of the same benefits (clarity, positive thoughts, direction, knowledge and laughter) for a fraction of the price of a coaching seminar. The Power of Happiness is more than just an ebook—it’s an entire syllabus on happiness.

The PDF workbook asks you to complete ten assignments, such as an eight-point “happiness wheel”, and a list of 99 things that make you happy (very difficult). It also gives you CBT-style exercises based both on your own life and on realistic fictional examples. This book discusses happiness from so many different angles that most readers will not only find comfort in re-reading familiar disciplines, but also discover new slants on happiness, which interested readers can then explore through the abundant references.

The Power of Happiness combines a wealth of research from Buddhism, neurobiology, scientific studies, and self-help guides into a resource-rich home-study syllabus. My most memorable lesson is that happiness is an inside job—that happiness depends on your internal well-being, not on your external circumstances. This lesson is Buddhist by coincidence. The Dalai Lama is quoted in this book as saying, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions”. The Power of Happiness explains how transient pleasures such as money, food, and job titles are incapable of making us happy because lasting happiness cannot come from things that can be taken away.

Another ‘Buddhist-by-coincidence’ lesson was the five types of thinking that make you unhappy: Attachment to Things, Expectations of Others, Expectations of Yourself, Attachment to a Different Time, The Idea that Things Should Be Different Than They Are. Much of this has also been confirmed by neurobiological studies.

This book is not aimed at treating depression. This book is aimed at elevating the majority of us, who are somewhere between ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’, further up towards ‘happy’. If you fit into this category (and I certainly do), then you’ll find this happiness syllabus well worth your time. Study it diligently, do all the exercises, and you’ll feel lifted. Great value for $5. ★★★★★

Book: 钟博士讲解弟子规

Maosen Zhong’s annotation of Dizigui (“Rules for Children”). Written in Chinese.

Recommended for all under 40 years of age. Study the original text intensely before reading.
196 pages, ★★★★
Language: Chinese 

I’m already a fan of Maosen Zhong’s teachings. Recently, I finished reading his annotated collection of classical excerpts on femininity called 窈窕淑女的标准 (which roughly translates as “How to be a Fair Lady“). I gave it five stars and recommended it for men, too.

Dizigui (pronounced ‘deetzergway’)  is an ancient Chinese classic that teaches children and adult students how to behave in daily life according to ancient Confucian principles. It focuses mainly on how to treat ones parents and teachers with “禮”, or “lǐ”, which is roughly translated as “respect”. Since Confucius placed so much emphasis on 禮, a book that fully expounds its meaning comes as a great relief.

Among the 360 rules in this book are:

  • Don’t be picky about food
  • Always get enough sleep
  • Stay away from drugs (including alcohol and karaoke bars)
  • Don’t be lazy
  • See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil and read no evil.
  • …and many more, with stories to illustrate each rule.
Zhong interprets and illustrates these rules using his own (usually exemplary) experiences and the (usually erroneous) actions of others.

The original text consists of 360 lines of three characters each, which form a beautiful poem just 1080 characters long. Zhong has printed this original text in full at the beginning of the book, which you should study meticulously before reading. The author expounds each line in great detail (sometimes too much detail) later on in the book—so I strongly recommend trying to make your own interpretation of the text before reading the author’s.

All children under the age of 40 should read this book. It should be taught in all Chinese schools (and it is starting to be introduced). Accessible English versions, however, are still hard to come by. The Pure Land School of Buddhism offers the best English version, available free for download hereBetter still, I think this book should be translated as poetry. So I started. ★★★★

Book: A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The paperback version would probably earn five jameskennedybeijing stars. I’ve been reading this in bed.

Perfect Middle School World History Reader. Adults should read this with children.
305 pages, ★★★★ (probably five stars in paperback) 

A Little History of the World is delightful to read. It’s written in verbatim speech, more like a bedtime story than a history textbook. The author, E. H. Gombrich, wrote this book extremely fast: sometimes one chapter per day, and very little editing was done before publication. The book therefore retains an original, colloquial style. That adds character.

Gombrich brings an obvious Greece/Rome/Europe-centric bias to this book. Very little space is devoted to flourishing ancient cultures in China, India, Africa and the pre-colonial Americas. In fact, the sole chapter on Chinese Buddhism was written not by Gombrich, but by a guest author. I suggest reading this book in conjunction with both Quick Access to Chinese History and China’s History for a more balanced picture.

I like how Gombrich sets the historical background for world-changing ideas: Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and Marxism, according to Gombrich, were inevitable results of social situations at different times. He explains the social background for each of these philosophies, and introduces each of them as a “solution to a major historical problem”. Historical atrocities are thus a little easier to accept. This suits children.

E. H. Gombrich tells stories less like a professional historian and more like a grandfather. His style is colloquial and his account of history is not 100% correct—he corrects his errors in the final chapter—but his vivid descriptions of character and situations are always memorable.

I’d read this to primary school students at bedtime; and I’d teach this to middle school students after school. A Little History of the World lends itself extremely well to annotations, research projects and extra homework assignments. It’s a book designed for adults to read with children. ★★★★