I’m listening to a course, from the modestly named Great Courses, on “Redefining Reality”. If you want breadth of knowledge, listen to BBC Radio’s free “In Our Time”. If you want depth, you can take one of these pay–for courses. A course is rather like a week of show on the one subject.

image: damage

My first course was “How to Read and Understand Shakespeare”. It was superbly presented by Professor Conner, and most enjoyable. Professor Conner both explained a number of plays to me, and bought them alive. I didn’t need to get to a playhouse to understand what was going on—although, obviously, seeing the plays would be a rather good idea. In other words, judging by this one example, I found the explanatory and inspirational quality of these courses to be very high.

I find that, like the radio show, a complete change of subject between the courses works well for me. It sounds like I want more depth to my breadth, and I suppose that’s right. You see, I followed the Shakespeare course with one on novels, and have not yet been able to motivate myself to start listening to it. Instead, I got inspired to completely switch subject, from the reality of theatre to the theatre of reality.

I’m only a third of the way through this new course, which covers ground I explored in my teens and 20s. The problem with reading a number of books on the history and development of the great sciences is that every book has the same plot and characters. That’s why I stopped reading up on contemporary science, then. Now, when I’ve come back to the subject after thirty years, it’s moved on. There are new plot details! I’m learning something.

This, however, means I’m not really in the target audience for Professor Gimbel’s lectures. For me, he’s rehashing old ground I’ve hashed before, whereas he aims at those for whom the entire subject is brand new. He does a superb job, too. I got almost every explanation first time. Everything is clear. He brings the difficult subject alive. I feel I understand everything he explains, and he explains them without math (well, except for the math concepts, but he uses normal English to explain them too). He’s covering mostly familiar ground to me at the moment, but he makes it fresh. He also has a very good line in bad jokes, and has already used up a year’s supply of groans.

He doesn’t just cover the modern sciences, he covers the history of the ideas behind them (to use In Our Time terminology), so we understand the context behind the bizarre ideas which successfully explain the world.

Now, as I’ve said, I’m only a third of the way through the course, so I’ll shut up now and get back to you when I’ve finished it. I’m speed listening, because it’s so well presented, so that might be rather soon. I’m not promising: even the best course cannot prevent interruptions.