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So you think you’re clever?

A book of interesting answers, Do You Still Think You’re Clever is a great secret Santa gift for the colleague or housemate you don’t know all that well. The book is John Farndon’s second collection of answers to some of the toughest questions to appear in the entrants interviews to Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Farndon’s mission statement is to get us all thinking. The title of the book itself, Farndon claims, is even an almost impossible question to answer. Based on an ‘unjustified presumption’ of a person once having thought they were clever, answering yes or no winds up making you look stupid. If you say yes you’re foolish for thinking you’re still clever, and if you say no… well, the ramifications of that are obvious. The unsatisfactory answers to this first question however, are kind of misleading; as Farndon goes on to explain in the next 200 hundred-odd pages, most questions do in fact have a satisfying answer.

Farndon takes us through his explanations for questions such as: how would you poison someone without anybody finding out? (medicine), do you believe that statues can move, and how might this belief be justified? (for potential French and Spanish students, obviously) and was Shakespeare a rebel? (English).

The answers are interesting but not exactly mind blowing. Some are logical to the point of obviousness, and some simply aren’t answered at all (the statues question concludes that if you believe it moved, it moved). The book advertises itself as if the questions within are completely unanswerable, but it doesn’t appear that it would be that difficult to answer any of them with even a little bit of research.
The book also seems to lack direction. There are no definitive sections, so questions about English follow answers about economics which follow answers about philosophy. Interesting as some of the answers are, this certainly isn’t a book you’re going to sit and read cover to cover so some direction toward the reader’s personal area of interest might encourage the easily bored to keep reading.

It seems perhaps that this book works better as a group activity. Farndon says himself that in writing about these subjects he’s asking you to disagree with him, to debate on the reasons why Charlotte Brontë detested Jane Austen, or on whether you believe that a man putting marmalade on his egg in the morning should be grounds for divorce.

Whether or not the book is helpful to Oxbridge applicants is a question only they can answer, but it seems unlikely. A prospective maths student isn’t going to be interested in whether or not poetry should be easy to understand. As a model for thinking processes, the book surely has its uses but in terms of preparation for an actual Oxbridge interview its usefulness is doubtful. You’d be better off reading an actual book about your subject.

09/12/2014

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