Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

This May Help You Understand the World by Lawrence Potter

In a confusing universe, it’s reassuring to find that it isn’t only you who doesn’t grasp the intricacies – or even the basics – of the world’s problems. We probably all feel that at some instinctive level we understand most of the big issues, but the truth is – certainly as far as I’m concerned anyway – that we couldn’t even begin to explain the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims (and why it matters) or the US electoral system, or the Weapons of Mass Destruction controversy, or why the Palestinians are fighting each other or even why organic bananas are so much better for everyone, not just you.

In fact, I suspect that the number of people who could get any further in their explanation than “Err … well …” would be tiny.

Those are just some of the topics covered in this excellent and well-timed book by Lawrence Potter.

He unerringly picks out all the news topics that most confuse me – and I presume other people – and explains them as simply as possible. That isn’t to say that you don’t have to pay attention (and I frequently found myself re-reading a section to try and lodge it more firmly in my aging brain), but he manages to cut through the obscuring verbiage you so often find in newspapers to present just the facts. Each section has been checked by experts in that particular field to make sure that no factual errors have crept in and Mr Potter does an admirable job of keeping his own opinions to himself.

If that makes it all sound very worthy but dull, rest assured that it isn’t. It’s well written with a vein of wry humour which enlivens the important-but-potentially-tedious bits, holds your attention and keeps you reading to the end.

I now keep the book by my bedside, not only because it’s useful to remind yourself now and then of why, for instance – to pick a current “hot” topic – it’s important to get former Ba’th Party members back into the infrastructure of Iraq, but also because it’s a good “dipping into” book. The layout of the book is such that you can pick a section at your leisure without necessarily having read what went before.

Considering what a comparatively slim volume it is, the amount of information in it is amazing, and it’s just so pleasing to be able to listen to a news broadcast or read a paper and actually have a reasonably clear idea of what they’re talking about. In fact, smugness is in danger of setting in …

Oh … and Mr Potter also tackles the thorny question of whether George W Bush really IS stupid.

The answer may surprise you.

Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. 2007. ISBN 978-0-7145-3137-3. 272pp.

19 comments on “This May Help You Understand the World by Lawrence Potter

  1. sequinonsea
    January 18, 2008

    This sounds like a ‘must’ read. I’ll look out for it. Great review.

  2. Trilby
    January 18, 2008

    Hm…I’m not sure why, but I’m instantly suspicious of this type of “dummies’ guide” to the world. Maybe it has a place in the pantheon of loo books, for casual dipping in and out, but surely it will date terribly within a few years? Much better to read a wide range of newspapers and develop familiarity with a topic from the ground up, I say! But then, I’m a total grump 🙂

  3. Mhairi
    January 18, 2008

    In theory, I agree with you completely, Trilby. Of course it would be better for everyone to read and digest a wide range of newspapers. Parts of the book will certainly date quickly, while other parts won’t – but then it isn’t supposed to be a great classic to be reread over the generations. It’s designed to help oiks like me, who don’t have the time, energy or – frankly – inclination to read ONE paper properly, let alone a wide range of them. My average daily “reading time” is about one hour, last thing at night before I go to sleep. In general, I prefer not to have the hell depressed out of me, so I don’t read a paper. I read a book. Working on the assumption that it’s better for people like me to know SOMETHING rather than NOTHING … this book does the job it sets out to do exceedingly well.

  4. Peta
    January 18, 2008

    Thank you – I really enjoyed this review and have pootled off to buy the book!

  5. rosyb
    January 18, 2008

    Also, I think newspapers can be hard to get a sense of the backstory from, unless you have been reading them since you were seven so I find the concept of this interesting. I always joke that I have grown up with a horror of newspapers due to my newspaper-obsessed family (including precocious sister happily ensconced behind the Financial Times before she reached double-figures). I am interested in their contents now but it can be hard to catch up on the whole situation beyond the events day-to-day and would really like to know more about a lot of situations i read about.

  6. Jackie
    January 18, 2008

    I was going to make the same point as Roy, in that the newspapers just focus on the immediate news without explaining the situation fully. A book like this would give one an overview of any given topic. I would think too, that it would be difficult for an author to avoid hinting about their opnions on certain subjects, so that’s impressive.
    But if he actually thinks that Dubya is intelligent, it casts doubt on everything else. I’ve heard that jerk talk too many times, there’s no way that he’s remotely intelligent. Why can’t people just admit that he’s a stupid puppet with delusions of granduer?

  7. Mhairi
    January 19, 2008

    There’s a difference between “not stupid” and “intelligent”, Jacks! It’s the difference between being in possession of a brain that functions reasonably well and actually USING it …

  8. Jackie
    January 19, 2008

    You aren’t saying that Dubya is “not stupid” are you?!?!

  9. Mhairi
    January 19, 2008

    Read the book, Acushla … Read the book! :o)

  10. lawrence
    April 19, 2008


    i dont know what the protocol is about this, but i am the author of ‘this may help you understand the world’.

    i stumbled across your review and comments, and i just thought i would reply to them.

    one of the motivations for writing the book was the fact that, despite a fair amount of paper-reading over my life, i still felt i had an inadequate grasp on the background to current affairs. as rosyb and jackie say, the papers rarely give much context to a current situation – which i find very frustrating.

    tragic as a car-bomb in baghdad is, a simple report of that event doesn’t give a reader much idea of the causes of the violence. describing hamas as a ‘militant islamic movement’ leaves a reader in the dark as to how it has gained power. we need more than three words – more even than a couple of paragraphs – to gain any real idea of a particular situation.

    my book is only meant to be a start in the right direction. it has references to further books and websites etc. for those who wish to study further.

    oh and by the way – on the george bush issue – i have always thought it very dangerous to write him off as ‘stupid’, without looking a bit further into where his views come from. as far as i can see, the worrying thing is that he isn’t stupid – he represents a world-view which plenty of intelligent people endorse – as crazy as that might seem.

    i would say it is better to try and understand where they are coming from rather than just dismissing them out-of-hand. that way, we might have a better chance of defeating their arguments.

    all the best


  11. Mhairi
    April 19, 2008

    Thank you very much for dropping by and commenting, Lawrence. There’s no protocol at all, really … and we’re always more than happy to have authors calling in.

    Your book worked – and continues to work – beautifully for me. Now that I understand the basics a little better I’m far more inclined to read articles that previously I would have by-passed.

  12. Jackie
    April 19, 2008

    Thanks, Mr. Potter, for explaining what you meant by your remarks concerning Dubya’s brain. That does put it in a somewhat different context.

  13. kirstyjane
    April 20, 2008

    How great to see an author commenting! Your point about Dubya hits home with me, as a historian. It strikes me that people too often filter an entire historical situation through their perception of the most visible representative figure. Hence – and I’m drawing no parallels here, just to be clear – the tendency of certain historians and writers to get all hung up on the ins and outs of Stalin’s psychological profile (which is something we cannot know for certain; nobody can get inside his head) rather than thinking about the kind of social, economic and political factors that would have created the political environment in which Stalin came to prominence. Incidentally, unlike with Bush, a lot of people seem to err on the side of overestimating Stalin’s abilities; a recent very popular biography even tried to claim that his poetry was good! (That might be a matter of taste, but from what I recall of reading it a while back, enlisting it as proof that he was an “evil genius” is arguably a little unwarranted).

    By the same token, I agree that it is too easy and as you say, rather dangerous to focus on Bush’s intelligence when it comes to explaining the political climate in America.

    Your book sounds fantastic and is definitely on my reading list!

  14. Pulman
    May 24, 2008

    What a pity Mr Potter couldn’t overcome his vanity, and felt compelled to reply to the inane witterings of “jackie”.
    I was looking forward to purchasing this book, attracted by the novel idea of an un-partisan look at current affairs. Any book that had the intelligence not to jump on the “stupid Bush” bandwagon had to be worth reading.
    Alas, Mr Potter couldn’t live with the thought that some people may consider him sympathetic to the US president, so now his negative and simplistic opinion is in print for all to see, which renders his book somewhat, how shall we say… useless.

  15. Moira
    May 25, 2008

    I’m not convinced that being offensive to two people simply because their personal opinions are at variance with yours is either productive or useful.

    It’s a tribute to Mr Potter and his book that his personal opinion of Mr Bush and his world view is not evident anywhere in it.

    He set out to write an even-handed, factual book and he succeeded.

  16. lawrence
    July 5, 2008

    it is very interesting reading people’s comments and criticisms on my book. a bit like overhearing a conversation when everyone thought you were out of the room.

    thanks for all your support. i hope you continue to enjoy the book.

    i am not going to get sucked any further into the george bush debate.

    or maybe i am.

    i have always been surprised about how definite people are prepared to be about their opinions. what is the basis for saying bush is stupid? – a couple of stories about his lack of knowledge of capital cities and foreign dignitaries – slightly embarassing for him, but i don’t think enough to decide the issue. educationally, as i say in my article, he might not be a genius, but he is perfectly intelligent.

    whether or not he has been a good leader is a different question. i know what the received opinion is at this time, but my own reaction would be to take a step back. i would need to know much more about his domestic policies – i would need to know much more about the decision-making process that led up to the decision to invade iraq (which i assume is the most decisive factor in most people’s assessment of him).

    i am sure it would be possible for an academic to construct on good evidence an argument in which Bush was dismissed as a total imcompetent. i am also sure that an academic would be able to argue equally convincingly that Bush was a strong and decisive leader.

    the truth always lies somewhere in between. the problem is that we prefer black-and-white representations to the greyness of reality.

  17. frank
    September 12, 2009

    i bet i might understand the world we live in…it seems to me that we’re all ready to follow someone rather than ourselves….to try to become that imaginary character or that picture on the walll….to be a martyr that doesnt actually give up his life….this world is what it is because we are mearly people with emotions……emotions that can be tapped into by whatever means we let it or not….for a legitimate reason or not…..maybe just so we can make ourselves seem legitimate about things we are not legittimate about….so that we can make people think that we are something we want them to percieve us to be… that the character we try to be can be played so well by us that itll be remembered through time like a movie or book….and somewhere along the way we get into our niche and live and feed and grow off of whatever we surround ourselves with…..whether life is fair or not…in other words everyone one of us is no better than an animal because rationality that is tainted with vanity is what you get from above by GOD (free will)….therefore to be happy and giving thanks to the lord….having faith, wisdom and and being in gods grace…is what counts…

  18. frank
    September 12, 2009

    I like your showcase of intelligence lawrence…it seems i was not going to find anything when i looked up “is there anyone who understands the world like i do” on google…..i like to hear opinions…no opinions is the wrong word…..i like to hear “truth” from anyone who can put it forth….ecclesiastes…or the like….observing people is what i do best…..and i must say i am very much a misanthrope….once you realize how much faith you can put in people you realize that they have a mind of their own…and no telling whats going on in that head to make them think of giving you the best excuse they could find…its not always so…but in that case no one knows if its sincere, vain, both…or u just caught them with their “i cant tell him know” thinking cap on…….one thing is for sure…they’re all woth a good laugh or company…i just dont know why i like being around people i hate……maybe we shouldnt think…maybe we should just communicate through our mind….no secrets…no bs…no deception…and no control through deception…..i think id like for more people to think like me

  19. Mooshi
    January 27, 2011

    Although I am fully aware that it has been more than year since anyone has posted on this site, I would just like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and as a student, it has certainly helped me to understand the basics.

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