Do You Think You're Clever?: The Oxbridge Questions by John Farndon

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Do You Think You're Clever?: The Oxbridge Questions by John Farndon

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Difficult questions, and some difficult answers, but this spread of essays does not provide for enough entertainment.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Icon Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1848311329

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My history of interviews with Oxbridge colleges forms a very short dialogue. Me, to university admissions representative, You don’t actually do media studies per se, do you? He, No – our graduates run the media. Had I got a lot further, and sat in front of a potential tutor, I would have faced a question designed to baffle, provoke, bewilder – or to inspire a flight of intuitive intelligence. Thus is the media-running wheat separated from the media-consuming chaff. And thus is this book given its basis – sixty of the more remarkable questions, answered as our erudite author might have wished to answer them.

Some of the short essays he gives us are more reflecting on how to answer such a spurious-sounding question, such as what proportion of the planet’s freshwater is to be found bound up in an average cow? On the whole, however, he extemporises around the question – making note of any potentially tricksy wordings, and giving an educated response.

The questions provide possibly the greatest instant entertainment within these pages, ranging from moral questions to thought exercises, and more specialist ones, such as Mao’s thoughts on current China, or one designed to interrogate us as to the formulae limiting the pole vault world record. It’s a nice parlour game for us, then, to attempt our own answers.

As for those provided, however, I think the jury is out. Farndon has certainly done his research – he seems to have swallowed Aristotle, for one. But there’s no evidence the answers would have provided a successful interview – I cried out for a response to at least some of his responses. By the time he had proved his wide range of knowledge, I did still wonder why he and he alone was deemed the best answerer.

There is, of course, the proviso that these questions can be answered in copious ways – which most of the time is the point. You are helpless to avoid replying to his replies, however. One or two lead to a question of my own – “what was the question, again?”. One seems completely flawed to me – that of asking whether a computer could have a conscience. He jumps past basic Asimov’s rules of robotics, which computers share, and ignores how a computer could do something wrong in the first place, for arguments about how it might show guilt.

The silly (to me) question, Don’t you think Hamlet is a bit long? I do, is given a hagiography for the play. I would have responded with a pithy Better that than it be far too short, surely? Which is the problem of the book in summary – the questions are startling, obtuse, entertaining – but the responses here needed more wit, more variety, and more authoritative conclusion by the original askers, to make this as thought-provoking and universally enjoyable as it wanted to be.

I must thank Icon books for my review copy.

We enjoyed What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman and the other items in our list of Top Ten Non-Fiction Books To Make You Think much better.

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Buy Do You Think You're Clever?: The Oxbridge Questions by John Farndon at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Do You Think You're Clever?: The Oxbridge Questions by John Farndon at Amazon.com.

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