We all know you can learn a lot from reading fiction—about other cultures and time periods, about lifestyles and philosophies foreign to you. Reading almost always expands your mental horizons. but some books go beyond that. Sometimes, while enjoying a great novel, you find yourself learning something practical, a bit of knowledge you can apply in your daily life. These six books offer as much education as entertainment value.
The Revenant, by Michael Punke
Punke’s fantastic fictional retelling of the true story of the survival of Hugh Glass after he was mauled by a bear and left for dead is thrilling, and can be interpreted in many ways. Punke contemplates nature and man’s relationship to it, the value of revenge, and, ultimately, what drives us to continue living. Throughout, he also offers up a veritable survival how-to, detailing the methods Hugh Glass uses to survive with minimal equipment while horrifically injured. Many of the techniques offered are very real and could actually be useful should you find yourself lost in the wilderness, from setting up simple snare traps, to building temporary shelters that might mean the difference between freezing to death and living to see the sunrise.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
Wallace’s grand opus has a reputation as one of the most difficult postmodern novels ever written, but most people don’t realize it’s also a master class in the game of tennis. Wallace, once a ranked tennis player himself, imbues the story (set mainly at an elite tennis academy) with the sort of detail few possess; by the end of the book, you may not necessarily understand the plot, but you will have a much better understanding of tennis, whether you wanted that information or not. (You’ll also know a lot more about drugs and addiction, but that may not technically be a “skill.”)
Crytonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
Any book with computer technology at its core risks becoming dated quickly, and that’s true enough for Stephenson’s 1999 masterpiece. Still, it offers a solid foundational course in computer science and the basics of encryption, complete with an actual working cipher (designed by Bruce Schneier) and several functional scripts that you could type into a compiler (if you know what a compiler is). While the basics have changed in the years since it was written, the fundamentals are on point, and anyone who reads it will come away real-world knowledge. Which, considering the ongoing fervor over personal encryption versus government access, is the sort of knowledge that might come in very handy.
Paperback $13.60 | $16.00
Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder
One can argue whether philosophy is an actual life skill or not, but learning to question the world around you and to think critically about your assumptions can only produce insight and epiphany, so we’ll allow it. This remarkable novel is a work of fiction and a comprehensive primer on Western philosophy. After reading it, you’ll suddenly see the world around you much differently, as questions about existence and reality will seem much more primal and important. Plus, you’ll have a basic understanding of the development of Western thought. That seems useful, right?
Colours in the Steel, by K.J. Parker
K.J. Parker is a “maker,” someone who creates physical objects, and that knowledge and skill set features prominently in his works of fantasy. Read almost any of them to pick up knowledge of materials, and how they are shaped; engineering, and how its applied; and other fascinating, entirely tangible things. In Colours in the Steel, Parker drops engineering knowledge and features practical discussion of how science is applied. For anyone curious about how things were made throughout history, however, there’s no more enjoyable way to learn than by exloring a rich, epic fantasy world at the same time.
Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
Anyone seeking a list of books to read in order to learn how to write would do well to include Haunted. The way it calls attention to its own structure—the main story is about a group of eccentric writers who agree to be locked away from the world for a period of time in order to force themselves to write their masterpieces, with the plot interrupted regularly by short stories written by the characters—coupled with the way Palahniuk explores the link between inspiration, personality, and creativity, make it a useful work for anyone trying to translate lived experiences into fiction.