50 Books That Will Make You a Modern-Day Polymath

All it takes to become a modern-day polymath is a bit of light reading—or, a lot of heavy reading. If you read the books on this list and pay attention, you’ll walk away able to discuss just about anything with the confidence of an expert. We’re not saying these books represent the sum total of human knowledge, but…it’s close.

The Fifth Discipline, by Peter M. Senge

What You’ll Learn: How to, you know, learn.
First and foremost, learn how to get the most out of these books by prepping your brain to absorb knowledge as efficiently as possible. Senge’s book gives a fresh perspective on how to acquire, comprehend, and retain knew knowledge and skills—and if you’re going to tackle the other 49 books on this list, those are skills you’re gonna need.

How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman

What You’ll Learn: How to cook, well, everything.
We all have to eat, after all, and it’s more or less a proven fact that eating take out every night is bad for you in a lot of ways, including financially. Knowing how to cook is an essential life skill, so why not learn how to cook everything?

Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud

What You’ll Learn: How to read comics and graphic novels intelligently.
Let’s face it, comic book adaptations are dominating television and film right now. Until the money stops rolling in for superhero and graphic novel projects, you’re gonna need some knowledge to be able to fully appreciate the source material.

Learning to Program, by Steven Foote

What You’ll Learn: Programming.
There’s a growing philosophy that in the modern age knowing the basics of programming is an increasingly necessary skill just for daily living. In the same way our parents needed to know the basics of car repair, we need to know how to create an app rather than relying on super-rich Silicon Valley nerds to do it for us.

Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, by Bobby Fischer

What You’ll Learn: Chess.
Why play chess? For one, it’s one of the oldest games ever played. For another, humans’ ability to play chess may be all that’s standing between us and our computer overlords. Fischer was nuts, but he was a genius at the game, and his book (written before his full-on breakdown) remains a classic.

Wilderness Survival, by Gregory J. Davenport

What You’ll Learn: How to stay alive, no matter what.
You never know when a casual hike or camping trip or nuclear war might turn into a kill-or-be-killed adventure in the woods. Being an expert on things like building shelter, starting a fire, and knowing which purple berries will kill you might someday save your life.

How to Fix Absolutely Anything, by Instructables

What You’ll Learn: How to stop buying new every time something breaks. We’re living in a consumer society and the whole engine will stall if we stop replacing everything all the time. But you also need to worry about your personal bottom line, which means being able to repair things when you want to.

Economics Explained, by Robert L. Heilbroner

What You’ll Learn: How the world works.
If you’ve ever wondered why some folks are billionaires despite obvious mental limitations while you, reasonably smart, earn peanuts, it’s time to become an expert in the artificial systems we’ve created that run the world. While being able to explain economics to yourself might not make you a billionaire, it will at least show you how it could be done.

The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charles Papazian

What You’ll Learn: How to make your own beer.
Beer is not only one of the surest signs of mankind’s intelligence, it’s also an alcoholic beverage you can legally make in your own home. The question really is why wouldn’t you want to become an expert in it?

The Everything Music Theory Book, by Marc Schonbrun

What You’ll Learn: How music works—no matter what instrument you choose.
Being able to play a musical instrument is a wonderful thing, allowing you to be creative and entertaining all at once. Learning music theory is the backbone that will make it possible to play just about any instrument, so starting here is the smart move.

Modern Carpentry: Essential Skills for the Building Trades, by Willis H. Wagner

What You’ll Learn: The fundamentals of carpentry—or, how to build anything.
If you’ve ever tried to hire a contractor for a home improvement project, you have no doubt experienced the burning wish to be able to just do it yourself to a professional level. Learning how to build is the expertise you need to take control of your own physical world.

Building the Perfect PC, by Barbara Fritchman Thompson and Robert Thompson

What You’ll Learn: How computers work, and how to build one.
Building a computer isn’t just empowering, it’ll save you huge amounts of money. Becoming an expert in how computers work and how all the components fit together is probably the most essential skill of the modern age.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

What You’ll Learn: A basic understanding of science.
Bryson’s classic book ranges widely in subject matter, but what you’ll gain from it, really, is a fundamental understanding of the universe we live in. Just resist the urge to drone on at parties about what you’ll learn, which is more or less everything.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

What You’ll Learn: How to start drawing.
Being able to translate the images in your brain to a visual medium is a tremendous feat—and it’s a skill you can learn. You might not be the next artistic wonder, but you can certainly learn how to draw, which is an expertise you can apply to everything from website design to cute notes sent to your crushes.

Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish, by Joel Bates

What You’ll Learn: How to write that novel.
We’re living in the Golden Age of self-publishing—and everyone has at least one novel in them. Get that book out by becoming an expert in the unexpectedly complex arts of rising and falling action, world-building, and showing, not telling.

Emily Post’s Etiquette, by Peggy Post

What You’ll Learn: How to behave, you animal. Manners and etiquette might seem like quaint notions from another age, but they shouldn’t be. Knowing the rules is what allows us to break them thoughtfully, after all.

Haynes Manuals, by Editors of Haynes Manuals

What You’ll Learn: How to repair whatever vehicle you own, all by yourself—yes, it’s possible! Did you know that the featureless black plastic that greets you when you open the hood of your car are just there to hide the engine? Car makers don’t want you repairing your own vehicle, but these manuals will put the power back in your hands, and save you plenty of money.

Fluent in 3 Months, by Benny Lewis

What You’ll Learn: How to become fluent any language.
While the world waits for advanced translation implants (or the discovery of Babelfish), it’s also getting smaller by the hour. Being able to learn a new language as needed is a skill that might save you a tremendous amount of trouble someday in the (much nearer than you think) future.

Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly

What You’ll Learn: How to appreciate, pair, and order wine.
Wine isn’t nearly as complicated as some might want you to think, and really all that matters is that you’re enjoying whatever you’re drinking with dinner tonight. But a little expertise in wine is not only impressive to the unwashed masses (i.e., your friends) it will also increase your enjoyment of life in general.

The Times Complete History of the World, by Richard Overy

What You’ll Learn: How we got here, and why.
If you’re at all surprised at what’s happening in the world, you haven’t been paying attention. A knowledge of history is like having the cheat codes to this game called life.

Make: Electronics, by Charles Platt

What You’ll Learn: The basics of working with electronics.
We’re long past the time when you could reasonably exists without using electricity. Every aspect of our lives is ruled, augmented, or made possible through electronic components, and yet most of us have no idea how any of it works. Becoming an expert in electronics is like becoming a wizard.

Practical Algebra, by Peter H. Selby

What You’ll Learn: How to apply basic math skills to make your life better.
If you were one of those people who thought “Algebra: when will I ever use this in real life?” back in school, the time has come to admit that the universe is just math in physical form—master math, master the world.

The Vegetable Gardeners Bible, by Edward C. Smith

What You’ll Learn: The fundamentals of growing your own food.
So, the zombies are on the march and the local grocer has been ransacked by terrified families. No worries, because you’ve got a garden producing all sorts of edibles … don’t you? If not, this book will give you the expertise to have a delightful garden that doubles as your zombie insurance.

Fight to Win, by Martin Dougherty

What You’ll Learn: How to defend yourself.
Every time you get out of bed, your chances of being attacked by ninjas doubles—and it’s not zero when you’re in bed, either. Everyone should know the basics of defending yourself. You don’t need to be a martial arts expert—you just need to be an expert in some of the basic self-defense moves that give you a fighting chance to defeat an attacker. Or, zombies.

HTML & CSS, by Jon Duckett

What You’ll Learn: How to roll your own website.
It’s the 21st century and just about everything you do goes through the Internet and some kind of website. People have websites for no professional reason, including, probably, you. But do you know the first thing about how they work? HTML5, CSS, and other languages are the lingua franca of the modern world.

The Bar Book, by Jeffrey Morgentaler

What You’ll Learn: How to make amazing cocktails.
Every adult should know three things: how to cook, how to ride a bike, and how to mix a good cocktail. Cocktails being the cherry on top of civilization, being an expert in mixology instantly makes you the most interesting person at every party.

The Zombie Survival Guide, by Max Brooks

What You’ll Learn: How to survive the zombie holocaust.
Speaking of zombie gardens and self-defense: the dead rising from their graves is more or less inevitable according to every religion and every single SFF book ever written, so why not be the hero of your block? When future histories are written, the only names any one will remember are the folks who fought off the undead hordes, after all.

Crochet for Beginners, by Tarie Fondertak

What You’ll Learn: How to crochet.
Being able to take raw materials like colored bits of string and transform them into useful things is the sort of skill people used to take for granted. The bonus to becoming an expert crocheter is the meditative, zen aspects of keeping your hands busy while your mind is free to roam and de-stress.

Total Money Makeover, by Dave Ramsey

What You’ll Learn: How to take control of your finances.
Financial expertise isn’t necessarily about killing the stock market, it’s about fundamentals—paying your bills, building up a rainy-day fund, and preparing for retirement. This book will give you the basic knowledge you need to pay down your debts and set yourself up to be able to do anything you want.

The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music, by Tim Smith

What You’ll Learn: An appreciation for the music of the past.
There’s no law that says you have to love classical music—or jazz, or hip hop, or rock. But before you can dismiss a genre of music, you owe it to yourself to know something about it, so you can dismiss it from a position of expertise.

Total Yoga, by Tara Fraser

What You’ll Learn: The basics of yoga.
Yoga is great exercise for the body and the mind. It keeps you limber, builds balance, coordination, and muscle strength, all while offering a spiritual connection between your brain and your limbs that can lead to a less stressful, more mindful existence.

The Everything Philosophy Book, by James Mannion

What You’ll Learn: The basic tenets of philosophy.
If you thought math wasn’t going to be useful in your daily life, philosophy probably seems even less so. Being an expert in the basics of philosophical thought makes you an expert in the sum total of the human experience, though—we’re all just trying to figure out why we’re here, and being able to sum up the viewpoints of geniuses on the subject is powerful stuff.

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Casino Games, by John Gollehon

What You’ll Learn: How to look like you belong on the casino floor.
If you’re going to gamble, why not gamble smart by becoming an expert on the games? This sort of expertise also allows for that awesome moment when you demonstrate that you actually know how to play baccarat, just like James Bond.

The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook, by The American Red Cross

What You’ll Learn: How to save a life—maybe your own.
There’s absolutely no reason every single person shouldn’t be an expert in first aid. We’re living in a society here, and one of the basic rules of civilized society has to be not letting people around you die due to your own ignorance.

Essentialism, by Greg McKeown

What You’ll Learn: How to manage time, and the rest of your life.
Time is a precious resource; none of us now just how much of it we have, and there’s no way to get more of it. The only thing you can do is master the art of organizing your time and using it wisely. That’s what this book will make you an expert in.

A La Carte, by Sherrill Canet

What You’ll Learn: The fundamentals of interior design.
Like it or not, at some point in your life you’re going to look around your hovel and want to redecorate. It’s part of getting older and actually, you know, owning things. If you want your efforts to result in a space you actually want to live in, best to become an expert in interior design with a book like this one.

The Cognitive Style of Power Point, by Edward Tufte

What You’ll Learn: How to use Power Point effectively.
Power Point is a hideous mark against humanity, it’s true, but if you find yourself working in an office chances are you’re going to have to deal with it. Learning how to use it well is the difference between a conference room full of sleeping people and a team carrying you out of the meeting on their shoulders in triumph.

Go, by Chip Kidd

What You’ll Learn: The basics of graphic design.
We’re living in a world where the term “personal brand” is no longer something only actors and spokespeople have to worry about. Seeing that we’re all the CEOs of our personal destiny, being able to design the face you present to the world is as essential skill as you can find.

The Trainable Cat, by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis and Modern Dog Parenting, by Sarah Hodgson

What You’ll Learn: How to be a better pet-parent.
Millions of us have fur babies, and most of us act like they’re mysterious aliens whose desires and needs are unknowable. But they are knowable—all you need is a bit of expertise, and you could have well-trained, well-behaved, and very happy pets.

First Time Sewing, by The Editors of Creative Publishing International

What You’ll Learn: How to sew.
Before you could buy a pair of pants for less than a childhood allowance from the 1970s, people used to sew their own clothes all the time. Become an expert and you can launch your own fashion line, just like Kanye.

Marathon, by Hal Higdon

What You’ll Learn: How to train for a marathon.
If you want to live longer, you’re going to have to exercise, and running is the easiest way to do that. It costs nothing but time and determination, and the best way to become an expert on running is to train for a marathon, regardless of whether you ever actually intend to run one.

Real Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg

What You’ll Learn: How to be more mindful.
Meditation is itself a super power, a way of clearing the confusion and stress from your mind, enabling you to focus on what’s important. Become an expert at being centered, mindful, and present in the moment and watch in wonder as every other aspect of your life blooms as a result.

The Filmmaker’s Handbook, by Steven Ascher

What You’ll Learn: How to make a film or video.
Youtube is by far the most powerful and influential website in the world—it has its own celebrity culture, after all—because we’re living in the video age. If you want to be truly part of the modern world, learn how to make a video. If that leads to you making Citizen Kane Mark Two, all the better.

Basic Plumbing, by Howard C. Massey

What You’ll Learn: How to keep the water flowing in your house.
Water is life, and if you’re blessed to live in an area of the world where they pump clean water into your home for a nominal cost, appreciate that. And then learn how to maintain it, control it, and reconfigure it.

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing, by John C. Bogle

What You’ll Learn: How to work with the stock market.
If you’ve mastered economics and personal finance, the time might have come to actually build a little wealth. Become an expert on the stock market and give yourself a fighting chance to become one of the capitalist oppressors we hear so much about.

The Complete Guide to Wiring, by The Editors of CPi

What You’ll Learn: How the basic wiring in your house works.
Similar to water, most of us enjoy the magic of electricity flowing through the walls of our home, enabling air conditioning, microwaved burritos, and television. Instead of viewing electricity as some sort of Harry Potter magic, learn how to control this force and then use it—for good or evil, your choice.

A History of God, by Karen Armstrong

What You’ll Learn: How the modern religions of the world evolved.
One thing most folks don’t think on much is religion. It’s either whatever you inherited from your parents, or it’s not a part of your life at all. Become an expert in the historic truth behind the major religions, and it’ll either enhance your sense of faith, or give you factual arguments against it. Your choice, as god intended.

How to Read Novels Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster

What You’ll Learn: Hoe to be an expert in literary analysis.
Most people read for pleasure, and don’t spend much time thinking hard about what they’ve just experienced. Learn how to really read a novel by learning just how the sausage is made. If nothing else, you’ll come away with the power to be really, really annoying at cocktail parties.

How to Find Out Anything, by Don Macleod

What You’ll Learn: How to find out anything.
If the other 49 books on this list don’t lead you true Polymathism, this one will show you how you can patch any knowledge gap. After all, there are both known and unknown unknowns, and as the latter become the former you’re going to need to brush up on your expertise.

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