Pick the Brain

The 5 Types of Books that Increase Intelligence

April 5th, 2007 by John Wesley · 16 Comments

We read for information, with the hope that information we acquire will improve our minds, giving us the means to improve our lives. In the modern Age of Information, more reading material is available than ever, making it increasingly difficult to allocate our reading time efficiently.

All books are not created equal, and it follows that all readers are not equal either. To read prodigiously and to read profitably are two very different things. A great amount of time is wasted reading books that are forgotten a short time after they’re completed. But time spent reading books that cultivate intelligence and wisdom is a labor that yields continuous benefit over a lifetime.

Although it is certainly necessary, for the purposes of business and everyday life, to read about the latest news and trends, that type of reading is outside the scope of this article. My aim is to encourage the reading of books that permanently increase intelligence and, as a result, improve our chances of leading prosperous and fulfilling lives.

1. Science

Science is not restricted to scientific text books. It includes all books that increase our understanding of the natural world. This includes books on commerce and society, with the unifying theme being the use of evidence to explain events.

The great value of these books comes, not from the theories they prove (which will likely be disproved in the future), but from the development of curiosity and the methods of learning. Scientific books teach us how to investigate our intuition and validate it with evidence. They also inspire wonder and respect for the physical world and for our own intellect.

2. Philosophy

In ancient times, science and philosophy grew from the seed of analytical thought. If science teaches us to understand the outside world, philosophy teaches us to understand ourselves. It could very well be called the science of human life.

In addition to the classic philosophical works, this category also includes the great religious texts. The Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, etc. are not universaly valuable because of religious dogma, but because of the wisdom and beauty that has inspired billions to live loving, pious lives.

It is an unfortunate modern bias that philosophy is considered irrelevant. Although we worship at the shrine of modern technology, this is still a very human world. Philosophy will increase your understanding of human needs and desires, knowledge that is essential for spreading ideas and predicting human behavior.

3. Serious Fiction

I’d like to permanently discredit the belief that fictional works are inferior because they’re only “made up stories”. Only a person totally devoid of imagination could believe that. Great works of fiction contain more truth than any other literary genre because they allow the reader to experience a new reality. Fiction creates experiences that elevate your level of consciousness.

Serious fiction also contains a great deal of philosophy, psychology, and history. Truman Capote said that a good novel is worth more than any scientific study. For the purpose of increasing individual human intelligence, I’m inclined to agree.

Great fiction is also great language. And as I’ve written before, reading great language is the only way to become a better writer. It will also make you a better thinker, speaker, and conversationalist.

4. History

History feels boring because as children it meant dull text books, memorizing dates, and tedious lectures. And who can blame us? The public schools have done their best to take the humanity out of history.

But at it’s best, history is fascinating anecdotes, remarkable characters, and the evolution of ideas that have shaped civilization. By learning about the past we are able to interpret our own times. We are able to recognize modern prejudices and the nature of humanity.

Although history may not help us predict the future, it increases self understanding and awareness. It teaches us the timelessness of ideas and morality.

5. Poetry

I saved poetry for last because convincing you to take it seriously provides the greatest challenge. Poetry arouses images of Shakespearian actors reciting flowery rhymes. It’s no wonder most people think it lacks substance and applicability.

But to maintain this opinion is to ignore one of the great joys of human intelligence and underestimate the mysterious power of words. It’s no coincidence that many languages use the same word for poet and prophet.

The reading of great poetry produces a feeling that cannot be adequately described, a feeling of awe and reverence for the power of words. Great poetry is the fusion of music and meaning. It is the medium of humanity’s most ancient masterpieces.

Poetry sharpens language skills and develops eloquence. Meaning is only half of great language. The best authors write with a style that is both pleasurable and instructive. An appreciation of poetry is essential for reaching this degree of excellence.


I can’t make a formal set of recommendations. There are just too many great books and my experience is too limited. How could I presume to know your tastes or area of interest?

What I can to do is point out a couple places where you’ll be sure to find something of interest. Anyone who follows this site knows that I’m a whore for the old stuff. Strangely, the internet (combined the with public domain) is the best thing that’s happened to old books since the printing press.

Bartleby contains an extensive collection of materials that are well formatted for online reading.

Project Gutenberg has almost any old book you could want.

Of course there are many other great sites you can find with a quick search. Although these sites aren’t great for longterm reading, they can be used to test out books you might be interested in or fill a few spare minutes with quality reading.

If you don’t know where to start, I recommend browsing famous quotations. Once you find an author that resonates, learn more about them.

You should never read a book just to be able to say that you’ve read it. Reading all the books in the world won’t make you any smarter unless you think about what you read and apply it to your own existence. You should read for self improvement, not to feel educated and superior.

Reading, even the most rigorous intellectual type, should be a labor of love. It might be easier to read lighter books, but the moments of discovery created by challenging books are more pleasurable and exhilarating than any suspense novel.

If you make an effort to read more profitably, you’ll be rewarded with wisdom, beauty, and many hours of productive leisure.

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16 responses so far ↓

  • Kim Roach // Apr 5, 2007 at 6:31 am

    Hey John, Thanks for the great article. Your thoughts on reading are so true.

    I love the quote by Charlie Jones: ”

    You are the same today that you are going to be in five years from now except for two things: the people with whom you associate and the books you read.”

    I think every book changes us a bit and adds to our life experience. I have recently become a voracious reader. Mostly non-fiction, but I do need to expand my reading to include some of the genres listed in your article.

    Thanks for the great tips!

  • orangeguru // Apr 5, 2007 at 11:15 am

    But time spent reading books that cultivate intelligence and wisdom is a labor that yields continuous benefit over a lifetime.

    Reading books mostly cultivates your knowledge, not your intelligence. Sure some writing can make you think - but applying your knowledge and your intelligence to solve problems is the best way to fire up your neurons.

  • John Wesley // Apr 5, 2007 at 11:34 am

    @Kim - Thanks, that’s a great quote and very true.

    @orangeguru - You make a good point. Perhaps a better title would have been “Books that Increase Wisdom”. Problem solving is the most important part, as you said. The article agrees with that.

    “Reading all the books in the world won’t make you any smarter unless you think about what you read and apply it to your own existence.”

  • wamylove // Apr 5, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    I give aptitude tests, including intelligence, for a living. I can quickly tell who reads and who doesn’t. The amount of education does not matter as much as whether or not they read every day.

  • John Wesley // Apr 5, 2007 at 2:31 pm


    That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think being a reader helped me a lot on my SATS. How else are you supposed to get those analogies?

  • Life Optimizer - Live your life to the max // Apr 6, 2007 at 5:54 am

    […] The 5 Types of Books that Increase Intelligence by John WesleyMany people just read books in the fields they are familiar with. You should enrich yourself by reading other types of books. This article gives you five types of them. […]

  • wowmir // Apr 6, 2007 at 7:24 am

    You used the term whore for old the old stuff. That would mean that the old stuff would have to pay you, but actually what you meant that you were a big fan.

  • Explorelife // Apr 7, 2007 at 9:41 am

    Hi John, I appreciate your view on types of books to read. I wanted to add another perspective. Wisdom is available to anyone who seeks awareness and their are many personal journey books that expand our knowing and insight. I just discovered your site and am excited to find others helping people to wake up to their potential. Joseph at www.explorelifeblog.com

  • The Internet Journalist » 5 Types of Books That Make You Smarter // Apr 7, 2007 at 11:56 am

    […] What you get in is what you give out, take in sloppy tv and you give sloppy out. Hang around with lazy people, you become lazy. We become what we are surrounded by. There are ways you can improve yourself. Reading these 5 types of books could help. from Pickthebrain […]

  • bnr // Apr 7, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    You forgot at least one other category that should be on there - instructional book. If you read “how to play chess” and it leads to a life long love of the game, I’d certainly say you life was enriched!

  • John Wesley // Apr 7, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    You make a good point. There are actually a bunch of other categories I considered, but for the sake of brevity I chose to limit it to 5. I think instructional books could be counted as a subset of the science category.

  • Tomas // Apr 8, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Could books decrease intelligence as well as increase it? You would assume that only trashy books would do so, but that can’t be proven.

    A good book is good regardless of its intended audience (sorry for the dichotomy, good=good; I use the word good in two different ways). A good romance will make you feel alive.

  • John Wesley // Apr 8, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    I think even trashy books have value if you enjoy them. They’re probably more engaging than television.

  • Bob B // Apr 8, 2007 at 1:38 pm


    You can increase knowledge by reading books but you can’t increase intelligence, unless you mean figuratively. Intelligence is to a large extent fixed.


  • John Wesley // Apr 8, 2007 at 1:57 pm


    It all depends on how you define intelligence.

    Although our raw cognitive abilities are largely fixed, I think a lot more goes into intelligence. If gaining knowledge can increase you technical skill or your ability to make good decisions, wouldn’t that knowledge make you more intelligent?

    Increasing knowledge leads to increased intelligence (or increased wisdom), even if it doesn’t lead to higher IQ.

  • Olympia // Apr 8, 2007 at 5:44 pm


    I would be interested in knowing the other categories you considered. Perhaps if the list is too long for posting at this location, you could send me some information via email.

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