"Which book to read"

I was discussing my education from the ages of 16 to 21 with a friend, when he pointed out that "finding out which book to read" was important to doing well at exams. This made me think back to those days, and realise that it was indeed extremely important, though I had given it little thought at the time. I think that my friend had realised its importance while at university, maybe even while at school, with excellent results for him.

So, on this page, I give an account of my successes and failures, in my last years at school and my years at university, in finding out which book to read, and the effect on my exam results.


In my final years at school (in England), I studied three subjects for my "A levels": physics, chemistry, and maths.


I did not get on well with the physics teacher. He disliked me, because I asked him questions about physics which he could not answer. I asked them in the hope of learning about physics, not to show up his ignorance; but he may not have realised that. Once I realised that asking him questions was not productive, I stopped. Indeed, for most of the two years of physics A level, we did not speak to each other.

But he did make sure that each pupil in his class had a copy of a standard physics text, based on the A level syllabus. While he was teaching the boys at the front of the classroom, I sat at the back, ignoring him, reading the textbook, and disturbing no-one. This was enough to get me a good result at A level.


The chemistry teacher was a more likeable man, but he did not know much chemistry. He was at the school for the opportunities it provided for his paedophilia.

However I had an amazing stroke of good luck. Twice a week, we were required to play rugby football, which I hated. In my first term of A level studies, I was accidentally omitted from the list from which the rugby teams were drawn up. (Maybe this wasn't an accident; if so, my huge thanks to the person responsible for sparing me this torment.) I realised that if, during rugby-playing time, I was seen lazing around in my usual haunts, I would be reinstated on the list. So I spent those hours in the school library, where the authorities rarely went looking for miscreants, and sat there reading a dull-looking textbook.

The book I selected, for its thickness, grey binding, and relevance to my studies, happened to be Mellor's Modern Inorganic Chemistry. I was able to understand, and learn from, this book. I liked the way that, after reading the chapter on the chemistry of oxygen, the next chapter was on the chemistry of sulphur, which was like oxygen but heavier and less reactive. This book did more than the chemistry teacher to contribute to a good A level result for me.


Maths was my favourite subject, I was good at it, I liked the maths teacher, and he liked me. I wanted to learn more maths than he was able to teach, and I tried looking for maths textbooks in the school library, but failed to find any. (There must have been some. But they may all have been about what I now think of as "sausage-machine mathematics": rote learning and incomprehending application of methods. What I was looking for was a book providing understanding of the subject.) I did find some books by Martin Gardner, which were fascinating, though irrelevant to the maths A level syllabus.

All this should not have been a problem. When we did "mock exams" after the first of the two years of the A level course, I got good results. But after a second year, in which the class was required to do the same work and answer the same questions repeatedly until we were all sick of them, we all got poor A level results.


Year 1 (maths, physics, chemistry, crystallography)

In my first year at university, I did little work, and achieved correspondingly poor results. Fair enough.

Year 2 (maths, physics)

In my second year, I determined to work much harder. But I found it difficult learning from lectures. Each lecture course would start well for me, but if I ever "lost the thread", I never found a way to pick it up again, absorbed little from subsequent lectures, and stopped attending them. I believed I would be able to learn much better from books, which would allow me to turn back to a previous page to pick up a lost thread. So I asked several of my teachers, including my "director of studies", the person supposedly responsible for overseeing of my education, what book or books they would recommend. None was helpful, and the director of studies explicitly refused to recommend any book, telling me I was supposed to attend all my lectures. So I looked at the range of physics books available, bought a comprehensive one with the right level of difficulty, and worked my way through it, doing all the problems at the end of each chapter.

Unfortunately, there turned out to be relatively little overlap between the content of this book and the syllabus I was meant to be studying. At the end of the year I got poor exam results. (My studies were not entirely wasted. I had greatly increased my understanding of how the physical world works; and many years later, I was able to help my son with the first two years of his university physics course.)

Year 3 (genetics)

Having pretty much flunked my physics course, I switched to genetics for my third year. Someone pointed out that embarking on a third-year university course in a biological science with no previous training in any life science might be difficult, and recommended that I read "Genetics" by M.W.Strickberger (another thick book in a grey binding, as it happens) over the summer vacation. I did so, and understood and retained almost all its contents. I believe that if I had done no more work, I would still have received a tolerable exam grade at the end of the year, better than I had achieved in either of the previous two years. I did in fact work quite hard for the rest of the year, and achieved an excellent result in my final exams.

I felt at the time that I had benefited unfairly from a bureaucratic oversight, similar to the one at school which allowed me to escape from rugby. Someone had told me which book to read, a thing that wasn't meant to happen.

In hindsight

The behaviour of my schoolteachers has little significance. They were untrained unqualified teachers, doing their best in their various ways.

The behaviour of my university teachers is harder to explain. When a university student is keen to learn about a subject and keen to do well in his exams, and his teachers would also like him to learn about the subject and do well in his exams, it ought to be in everyone's interest to let the student know what he will be examined on. I still find it odd that this could not be achieved.

This is one of several miscellaneous pages.