Do you want to read a 400 page book (plus an index) all about your friends at ETS?  Well, maybe you should!  This month I read Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.”  Writing in a fairly  accessible tone, Lehman describes the founding of ETS in the 1940s and the goals that the creators of the standardized testing movement had in mind when the radically reformed how American universities (especially the good ones) admitted students. These reforms were borne out of a desire to foster a “meritocracy” of talented people which they hoped would emerge from the universities and shape the post-war nation.  Needless to say, things didn’t work out as well as they hoped they would, but the ideas behind their plan still loom large in American society. Part of the book examines the movement for affirmative action at American universities, which Lemann seems to think came about as a result of their heavy reliance on SAT scores. 

This is a valuable chronicle of a unique part of American history which I don’t think has been sufficiently documented. As Lehmann notes later in the book, all of this stuff was put into place without political purview or open debate.  Instead, a small number of men made some important choices that have had a major impact on American society for almost eighty years.  And counting.

A few passages of the book are worth repeating here.  Just for fun.

Regarding ETS founder Henry Chauncey:

“He didn’t believe that he and his colleagues had been explicit social engineers; they were simply trying to help the country” (120).

Though the book was written 23 years ago, much of it sounds chillingly contemporary:

“The psychological side [of being a new-style meritocrat” was… a powerful experience – being constantly evaluated as you grew up and then being admitted into a special group. One’s impulse was to go through life repeating the fundamental cycle of gratification: selective admission, followed by membership in a tight, reassuring (though rivalrous) cadre of similarly chosen people. […] At the same time the idea that you might be a national leader was still alive. You wanted assured success and security, but not just that. The most popular professions were not dentistry or certified public accountancy.  You also wanted to matter, to be admired, to take a part in shaping American society.” (186)


“By the 1970s there were already signs that the meritocratic order was not going to be so popular in American society as its founders had anticipated. […] The people selected for the elite were starting to look less like selfless leaders. They were on their way to making a lot of money, they took advantage of the tradition of draft exemptions for the brainy to get out of serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, they held themselves apart. And what had they done, really, to earn such privilege or authority other than to get high test scores and get good grades? The astonishing rise of Ronald Reagan demonstrated that political careers were being built by people who were exploiting public resentment of this new elite.” (187)

Those of you interested in buying a copy should seek out the paperback edition, which includes a new afterword. That afterword takes the form of a fairly scathing indictment of using IQ tests like the SAT to select who gets put on the path to joining the “elite” of society.  I won’t type it up here as I suppose I’ve quoted too much already.  But seek it out.  It is quite an essay.  Heck, if you call me on the phone I’ll read it to you.

A good companion to this book is “None of the Above” by David Owen. It was written about 15 years earlier and covers some of the same territory, but with a more irreverent tone. I reviewed that on Goodreads some months ago. Perhaps I’ll paste that review into the blog in April.

I fear I’ve ruined the “You Should Read More” series!  It wasn’t supposed to be a book review column!  But I did read some magazines this week.  Here are a few article recommendations to hone your academic reading skills:

  • The February 2022 issue of “Apollo” has a wonderful article about the history of Kabuki in Japan. Articles about history are commonly used in the reading section of the TOEFL, and I think dance has come up a few times.
  • The January 24, 2022 issue of “The New Yorker” has an interesting article about the book which the movie “Bambi” was based on.  Turns out that the book is quite unlike the film. The fun thing about most articles on the New Yorker website is that you can listen to them, read by an actual human being (not a computer voice).


A bit of a grab bag in today’s collection of recommended readings. But that’s never stopped me before, so let’s get started!

Behind the Wall Book CoverFirst up, I read another travel book by Colin Thubron.  This one is “Behind the Wall,” his first book on travel in China.  As you may have noticed, since beginning this column, I have slowly been working my way through all of Thubron’s travel books.  This one might be the weakest so far, but it is still worth reading.  Thubron spent about four months moving across the country in the mid 1980s, when the effects of the Cultural Revolution were still evident. To some extent it seems to lack the scholarship and erudition of the other Thurbon works I’ve mentioned here and veers into a depiction of the strangeness of the country.  You can get a copy on Amazon, or borrow it for free via the Open Library.  

Next, I read the January 17 issue of “The New Yorker” Magazine.  Now, you might wonder why a regular guy like me is reading such a fancy magazine.  Well, it’s because they have a really good subscription deal right now.  You can get 12 issues sent to you anywhere in the world for just $10.  And they’ll also send you a cute tote bag.  It is a good bag, too: my wife put our cat in the bag and carried him around the apartment for ten minutes.  All three of us were quite happy.  If you’ve got ten bucks to spare, the magazine is worthwhile. Much of the content is silly, but each issue has at least one good article with an academic bent.  In this issue, I enjoyed “The Great Siberian Thaw,” which talks about the effects of melting permafrost in Russia.  It’s a long article, but it is the sort of topic that you might find in the reading section of the TOEFL.  Indeed, I could even imagine a solution/problem integrated writing question based on this story.

After that, I glanced at the February issue of National Geographic at my local library.  At this point I should mention that if you are planning to stalk me, I’m often found at Doksan Library in Seoul.  It’s quite nice there.  Anyway, the magazine contained a decent article about the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  I was surprised to learn that the damage caused by the recent fire there was not severe, and that the restoration may be finished by 2023.  The article talks about the ongoing work, and also discusses the history of the famous site.

Finally, while visiting my other local library, I found a copy of the February issue of Reader’s Digest.  That amused me quite a lot, since I had no idea that Reader’s Digest was still published.  Also, it reminded me of a much simpler time, before everyone got irrationally angry about the state of the world.  I don’t think I’ll make reading it part of my monthly routine, but it is really reassuring to know that I could read it.  And, hey, if you want a mixture of casual and formal English content perhaps you can find a copy for yourself.   This month’s issue contained a decent article about the Danube Express, a train that travels between Istanbul and Budapest.  The thing about Reader’s Digest is that it prints edited (shortened) versions of popular articles.  If you want to read the full version of this story, you can find it in Travel and Leisure.

Okay.  That’s it for now.  Next month I’ll have yet more travel writing, a few more magazine articles and maybe a non-fiction book about a familiar topic.

It is the end of the month, and that means it is time for my favorite part of the blog… the monthly “you should read more” column!  Every month I I recommend a few things you can read to improve your academic reading skills.  I mostly focus on short non-fiction magazine articles, but sometimes (like today) I mention longer materials.  Everything I recommend is something I, personally, read in the previous month.  And to keep things a bit more unpredictable, I only mention stuff that I am able to track down in hard copy form.

First up, this month I read Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated.” That book was one of the best-selling books of 2018, with recommendations from all of the usual celebrities: Bill Gates, Barak Obama, Oprah (and more).  Normally I avoid stuff like that because I’m a snob, but this book was recommended by a reader of this blog.  In fact, it was recommended in the comments section of the very first one of these columns!  Basically, I will read anything you guys recommend, as long as I can find a cheap (or free) copy of it. The book is actually quite good, and not at all what I expected.  It tells the true story of Tara Westover, who grew up in an abusive family presided over by her paranoid survivalist father.  Tara’s experience is more terrifying than I expected it to be.  Again and again and again the book depicts horrific events that the young Tara lived through.  Besides that, there is an important message about the beneficial effects of education and how it helps us to expand our world.  I think that many of the eager and talented students that read this blog will appreciate it.  You can buy a copy on Amazon in a zillion different formats.  Sadly it is too recent to be on the Open Library.

Next, I read the January 2022 issue of “Apollo – the International Art Magazine.”  I started reading this magazine last month, and I am really digging it.  A few articles stood out:

  • The Shock of the New Towns is about the “new town” movement in the United Kingdom after World War II.  It talks about how the government there dealt with a housing shortage by constructing wholly new towns in parts of the country.  These were unique in that they were heavily planned and not organically created in a hodge-podge like most towns and cities across the world.  This exactly the sort of topic that the TOEFL writers would use on the test. I bet that over the past 17 years of the TOEFL iBT it has appeared at least once!
  • Has the Humboldt Forum Got it Horribly Wrong? is a longer article that discusses the debate around whether European museums ought to display cultural works acquired (or, some would say, stolen) from Africa and Asia.  It also discusses how they can be displayed if they choice is made to keep doing so.  This is too controversial to be on the TOEFL, but I can picture a third-party prep book turning it into an integrated writing question.  In any case, it is great academic reading practice, and quite interesting.

Finally, I read the Winter 21/22 issue of “Modern Dog.”  Yeah, last month I said that I had no more animal magazines coming… but I was wrong!  There was one more. In between advertisements for canine CBD supplements I read a very nice profile of the Berger Picard dog.  It’s basically academic reading practice.  And highly recommended if you like dogs.

That’s it for January, but check in next month.  I’ll list a travel book I’m currently reading and something from a new magazine subscription I managed to get for cheap.

Happy holidays!  It’s just about the end of the month, and that means it is time for my monthly list of recommended academic readings.  Check out the following links if you want to strengthen your reading skills before you take the test.

This month I started my reading with the November issue of History Today.  A few stories stood out:

  • In Good Spirits highlights the role of alcohol in the diplomacy of early modern Russia.  It turns out that everyone had to drink back then.  A lot.
  • Swimming in the Sahara is about rock art from about ten thousand years ago, and differing opinions as to what it means.  This is a bit closer to what you might get on the real test, as the TOEFL makers love articles about distant (but not too distant) history.
  • A Donkey’s Day in Court is a humorous article about an abused Donkey that was able to get justice in early 19th century England.  I enjoyed this one a lot.

Next, I read the December issue of the same magazine.  This will be the last issue of “History Today” I cite here, as my subscription has ended and one of my ground rules for this column is that I only mention stuff I’ve read in hard copy.  This issue was quite good.  A few pieces are worth highlighting:

  • Crimes of Fashion is a curious article about the lengths people went to to update their wardrobes in seventeenth century English. Apparently, new clothing was extremely expensive, so some folks resorted to crime when they wanted something new to wear.
  • How Father Christmas Got His Reindeer arrives just in time for Christmas.  It is a surprisingly long and detailed article about how the characters of Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came to be.  I liked it.

I should mention that, as usual, some of the best stuff in these magazines are hidden behind the paywall.  You might consider subscribing.

Apollo MagazineNext, I checked out a new magazine – the December issue of “Apollo: the International Art Magazine.”  You see, I got a deal on a three issue subscription last month.  This is a fascinating  publication.  Part of its business model seems to be the paid promotion of sales of art and antiquities.  Looking through the adverts, I was struck by the sort of stuff one can buy, if one has the right sort of bank account. Like £90,000 for a 2500 year old vase. Or £1,200,000 for a portrait by El Greco.  Or, heck, you could just buy a microscope that belonged to Charles Darwin (well, “the Charles Darwin Family”) for £350,000.

Anyways, the magazine did have a few interesting articles:

  • Travel fans will like this article about the puzzling (but, yes, inspiring) Rocchetta Mattei castle in Italy.
  • There is a really wonderful article about the history of the Faberge firm (famous for the Faberge Eggs) but sadly it is available only for subscribers. As a substitute, here is a similar article from an earlier issue of the mag.

Finally, I read the Fall/Winter issue of “Modern Cat.” Sadly, the content of Modern Cat isn’t quite as good as what is found in Modern Dog.  But…

  • Cats Prefer a Free Meal is basically academic reading material.  It’s about studies.  If you squint hard enough, it sort of resembles the fourth TOEFL speaking question. 

That’s my last house pet magazine, by the way.  No more cats and dogs on the blog.

Stay tuned until next month when I’ll have at least one book to recommend.  Finally!

No book recommendations today.  Sorry.  My personal reading was mostly fiction this month.  But, as usual, I did plow through a few magazines. 

First up, I read the September issue of “History Today.”  I enjoyed:

Next, I read the October issue of the same magazine.  In that one, I liked:

Both of these magazines contain a lot of great long-form articles… but alas they are for subscribers only.

Finally, I read the  Fall 2021 issue of Modern Dog (oh yes I did).  I spotted:

I think I’ve got one more issue of “History Today” and one more issue of “Modern Dog” coming before my subscriptions run out. Stay tuned!

Continue reading “You Should Read More – Part 15 (of 100)”

Another month, another list of recommended readings!

I ended my subscription to National Geographic, so there won’t be any more recommendations from that magazine after this month.  Same for Science News.  Moving forward, I want a bit more variety in this column!  I should mention that National Geographic has sent about ten letters to my home over the past couple months, begging me to resubscribe.  I wonder how much money they’ve spent on that.

Anyways, I did read the July and August issues of National Geographic this month.  A few articles stood out:

I also read a few books this month!  First up, I read yet another travel book by Colin Thubron.  This time I tackled “Among the Russians,” an account of his trip by car through the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.  While I have been hesitant to recommend his other travel books because of their “fancy” use of the English language, this one is a totally different beast.  The English here is functional and academic without being needlessly poetic.  I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants a bit of academic reading practice (and also loves travel).  You can get it for free on the Open Library or for cheap on Amazon.

I also read “None of the Above” by David Owen.  This book is an investigative look at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the SAT test from the early 1980s. The book is still relevant today as it is 2021 and it looks like the SAT test is finally on its last legs. If you’ve ever been frustrated with ETS, this is the book for you!  In addition to being informative, it is also very funny. Consider its opening lines:

“The not-for-profit are different from you and me. Tennis courts, a swimming pool, a baseball diamond, a croquet lawn, private hotel, four hundred acres of woods and rolling hills, cavorting deer, a resident flock of Canada geese. I’m loving every minute here at the Educational Testing Service, the great untaxed, unregulated, unblinking eye of the American meritocracy.”

The book is long out of print, but you can borrow it from the Open Library.

Okay, that’s all for now.  Now that I’m done with my science mags, I will start diving into my history mags for the next few months.  Stay tuned.

It’s the end of September, and you know what that means – some book and article recommendations!  If you are new to the blog, you might want to check out the master index of articles.  I recommend starting with the newer articles as they are less likely to have dead links.

We’ll start today with some short articles.  This month I read the July issue of “Science News” and spotted a few interesting stories, including:

I also found a few longer articles in the June issue of National Geographic.  They include:

A Week at the AirportI also read a few books!  First up, I read Alain de Botton’s “A Week at the Airport,” which is a very short book (barely longer than a magazine article) about a week he spent living at London’s Heathrow Airport. The book mixes his observations of the everyday goings-on of the airport with the philosophical musing’s he’s known for.  It isn’t exactly “TOEFL English” but it is a fun read if you are looking for non-fiction to keep your reading skills sharp.  You can find it at the Open Library or on Amazon.

Journey into CyprusMeanwhile, I’ve continued to stay home and enjoy travels only in the literary sense.  I read Colin Thubron’s Journey Into Cyprus.  Again, I warn you that his stuff is hard to read, but he remains my favorite living travel writer, so I’ll keep mentioning his books in this column!  This one describes a 900 kilometer walk he took through the country just before the partition of the country.  While this is the fourth of Thubron’s books I’ve mentioned here, I think it is his first perfect travel book, and the first written in the style he is known for today.  You can find it at the Open Library or on Amazon.

That’s all for this month.  But I’ve already found some fun stuff to mention at the end of October.  Stay tuned.

The little library in my neighborhood got rid of its entire collection of English books… and replaced it with an entirely new collection.  What a strange occurrence.  I had to walk to the next city over to get a copy of the first book on today’s list.

Guns Germs and SteelAnyways, that book was Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” (available on Amazon, and in the Open Library).  This book attempts to explain why events happens in certain places on earth, but not on others. This means it deals a lot with what I’ve called here “early human history,” which happens to be a favorite topic of the people who write the reading section of the TOEFL. Actually, I suppose Diamond’s book is on the shelf of all of the ETS item writers. It truly is just page after page after page of “TOEFL style” stuff.  Even the reading level and vocabulary usage seem to be quite similar to the TOEFL.  The best part, though, is that the book presents arguments instead of just describing things.  Seriously, if you only buy one book mentioned in my columns, get this one.

Jerusalem by Colin ThubronNext, I read Colin Thubron’s “Jerusalem” (out of print now, but available in the Open Library)  I’ve mentioned a few of his other travel books here.  They are probably too challenging to be of use to TOEFL test-takers, but I like to mention them here as I’m slowly working my way through Thubron’s complete bibliography of travel books.  This one marks the end of Thubron’s trilogy of books on middle eastern locales.  If you are interested in the region, you might like the book.  Just be prepared to keep Wikipedia open to look up his references, as Thubron assumes his readers already have a well-rounded education.  

Finally, I read both of the June issues of Science News. A few short articles stood out as relevant to TOEFL test-takers.  They are:

Hey, would you believe that I’ve been writing this column for a whole year?  Don’t worry… I’m not going to stop anytime soon.  Keep checking in every month for the remaining 88 parts!


Well, I took on some outside work this month and didn’t have time for anything on July’s to-do list, but I always have time for the least popular part of this blog – the monthly “you should read more” article!

MgazinesThis month I read the April 24 issue of “Science News.”  As always, the magazine contained a ton of great articles that resemble the various reading (and listening) tasks that appear on the TOEFL.  There were a few standouts this month:

Next I read the July Issue of “History Today.”  Articles about history are really common in the reading section of the test… and not just articles about “early” human history.  Most of the content from this  magazine is behind a paywall, but a few great articles are available online:

  • China’s First International Students discusses a group of young Chinese children sent to study abroad in 1872.  It’s a fascinating story. They were pulled back by the regime earlier than planned, but many of them played important roles in the development of the country upon their return.
  • Baby Boom or Bust compares today’s low birth rates to the history of France from the 19th to mid 20th centuries.

I also read the May issue of National Geographic.  This was the best issue of NatGeo in a long time.  Here’s what caught my eye:

  • The Conservation Popularity Contest could form the basis of a type 1 writing question.  I imagine a reading about the problem of ugly endangered species being ignored, and the lecture suggesting solutions to this problem.
  • There is a tiny little space-filler about the hummingbird being a “surrogate species.”  That would make a perfect type 3 speaking question!  I can’t find a link to the little article online, but here is a little article from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • One of the long feature articles this month is about saving coral reefs. That could certainly form the basis of a problem/solution writing question as well.

Finally, I read the Summer 2021 issue of Modern Cat Magazine. You had better believe it. I liked:

  • The Evolution of the Social Feline.  I think I will submit my foster cat for Modern Cat’s “Cat of the Week” award.  I hope you’ll all vote for it if I post a link here.

Nellie BlyI also read some books that aren’t worth mentioning here, but I will mention the Penguin Classics collection of journalist Nellie Bly’s work.  It’s titled “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings.”  Bly was a pioneering New York journalist in the late 19th and early 20th century.  She was noted for her “stunt reporting” including how she got herself committed to a mental hospital in 1887 to secretly investigate the conditions there, and her recording-breaking around the world trip in 1890.

That’s all for now.  More recommendations next month.

It’s June!  Time for another “You Should Read More” column.

A few interesting tidbits in the April 10 issue of “Science News.”  Like:

I enjoyed an article about the negative health effects of forest fires in the April issue of National Geographic.

Finally, I got my first issue of “History Today” magazine (the June issue).  I really enjoyed an article about English king Alfred the Great and whether he actually was great.  Alas, you’ll need a subscription to read that one (which you can get really, really cheap over here).  There are couple of free articles from this month, though:

  • Women and the Birth of England’s Stock Market discusses how women got heavily involved in the first British Stock Market.
  • Blood, Stone and Holy Bones discusses the concept of Holy Relics (that is artifacts of Christian saints) and how travelers to the Middle East  related to them in the middle ages.  I recall writing a very long essay on this topic when I was in university.

Before I close, I must mention that I published another TOEFL book review this month!  You can find my comments about Barron’s TOEFL Writing over here.


It’s May!

As always, “Science News” is a good source of articles for academic reading practice. A few stories stood out this month.  In particular:

Meanwhile, a reader sent in this article from the New York Times:

Sapiens Book CoverI finally read Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“last month.  This is one of the most popular history books of all time, and it is a perfect source of academic reading practice.  It is about the early history of mankind, which (as I indicated last month) is one of the most frequent topics on the reading section of the TOEFL.  You can buy it on Amazon, or get borrow it from the Open Library.

I listened to the audio version of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “The Bomber Mafia.”  Like Harari, Gladwell is a rock star in the world of non-fiction publishing.  His latest is about bombing missions carried out by the American military during World War II.  It is certainly thought provoking.  You can buy it on Amazon.

Hills of Adonis CoverFinally, I read Colin Thubron’s travel book “In the Hills of Adonis.”  This one is an account of his walking tour of Lebanon in 1967.  I recommended one of his earlier travel books last month.  Actually, I’m working my way through his whole bibliography in anticipation of his newest book, due out this November.  His work can be challenging but if you like travel and you like history check it out.  You can buy it on Amazon, or borrow it from the Open Library

Alright, that’s all for this month.  Next month I’ll have some words about a new TOEFL prep book published by Barrons.  Hopefully my first issue of “History Today” magazine will arrive, and I will be able to switch from science to history in terms of article recommendations.


Before I begin this  month’s column, I must draw your attention to a new article I published a few weeks ago.  I took a deep dive into all of the official TOEFL reading passages (47 in total) to see which topics  pop up most often.  I discovered that history is, by far, the most frequent topic.  Zoology is a distant second.  I’ll adjust my reading habits in the months ahead so that I can recommend a few more reading passages.

A few stories in Science News stood out this month.  In particular:

  • Naked Mole-Rats Squeak in Dialects describes how members of mole-rat colonies chirp in such a way that they can identify each other.  Interesting stuff.  I also learned that mole-rat groups resemble ant colonies in that they have a single breeding queen.
  • Upwellings May Push Continents Apart doesn’t have the same weird-factor, but as my survey indicated, physical geography is a common topic in the reading section.  Check it out.
  • Meatier Meals and More Playtime Might Reduce Cats’ Toll on Wildlife is about methods to prevents domestic cats from wiping out local bird and small-mammal populations.  Yeah, the TOEFL probably won’t have anything about cats on it, but this article would be perfect for someone trying to put together a problem/solution integrated writing passage.  It describes a problem (cats keep killing things) and several solutions to that problem (giving them more meat, playing with them, and putting a colorful collar on them).  I like it!
  • Stonehenge May Have Welsh Roots talks about the mysterious origin of Stonehenge.  As I said above, history is important!

I didn’t spend too much time with my stack of National Geographic Magazines this month, but a couple of things did catch my eye:

  • Our Obsession with Mars is the cover story from the March, 2021 issue.  Space stuff doesn’t appear in the reading section too often, but it does show up in the integrated writing section quite often.  Check it out.
  • I can’t find a link to an online version, but the same issue has a great infographic about species that thrive after a forest fire.  I can see that being the sort of thing that might appear in an integrated speaking question.

I read a great Science Fiction story by Charles Q. Choi in the January/February issue of Analog.  The good news for you is that you can buy it for two bucks from his own website.  Go check it out.  I’ll give you the two bucks.

That’s all for now, but next month I’ll have more recommendations.  I started in on a hefty history book which I should be finished with by then.

Science News Covers