Absolute beginners: In some elevated circles, knowledge is only valuable if gained through pain. Serena Mackesy examines a decorative alternative

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The Independent Culture
Nobody knows the etymological roots of the word Mafia. The Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, once said that 'James Joyce is a living argument . . . that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the Aboriginals of the island'. In 1902, Lenin went down with shingles, which was known as the 'Holy Fire' and had to be treated with iodine. On the night the Buddha was conceived, his mother dreamed that a white elephant had entered her womb.

Sometimes the incidentals of history are more riveting than the harder facts. It's fun to know that medieval people wiped their noses on their sleeves, except when they were rich, when they had a servant whose sleeve they used. Everyone knows those lovely phrases Diet of Worms and Defenestration of Prague, but most people wouldn't be able to fill you in on what actually happened at either. A lot of us have a basic understanding of the relevance of history to modern life, but most of us have never had the time to do more than get a GCSE and forget about everything but the buboes.

Slotting neatly in to the gap between total ignorance and the kind of concerted effort that most adults generally only put in to organising their holidays are Icon books's Beginners' series, a peculiar hybrid of the graphic novel and Coles' Notes. From their list your dabbling auto- didact can equip himself with a generous body of knowledge about the world's major figures, religions, events and political and intellectual movements without having to open a dictionary or work up a mental sweat.

These paperbacks are probably the ultimate in loo reading. You too can emerge, if you keep a handy copy of Lenin for Beginners by your crinoline lady, spouting words like chinovik and April Theses as though you wore DMs and hats and sold magazines on street corners. Or if you bump into Richard Gere at a party you can have a good chat about the state of his Hinayana as long as you've had Buddhism for Beginners with you under the bedclothes.

The first thing that's noticeable about these books is that they're written by people who actually know their subject inside out, be it Muhammad, Marx, the Mafia or Postmodernism. Not only that, but they display a passion for their individual subjects that's hard to find in the average classroom. The authors are also capable - in a way that an awful lot of academics aren't - of distilling this information into bite-sized gobbets that anyone can swallow with a tad of concentration.

This body of knowledge is leavened by black-and-white graphic cartoons. Not funny cartoons (there are jokes, but most of them rather feeble), but Conan the Barbarian-type cartoons: dark and grainy, part art, part paste-up. The spread of Mafia influence is represented by ever-growing octopus tentacles, the Buddha's selflessness by a line-drawn featurelessness. James Joyce's face is elongated to absurdity and his characters are cut-outs of classical statues.

This populist educational approach is just the sort of thing that has been working the three Rs brigade into a froth. It's too easy, you see. There's a sort of selfish exclusivity among the learned that makes them not want anyone else to join in without the maximum slog. But one could also argue that knowledge that is inaccessible is wasted knowledge. I once came across a several-thousand- page book called Annotations to Finnegans Wake gathering dust in a junk shop. It would have made a great coffee table.

Titles in Icon books' Beginners series cost pounds 7.99 and include Buddha, Lenin, Marx, Wittgenstein, Ecology, Newton, Freud, Darwin, Kafka, Jesus, Fascism, Feminism, Genetics, Jung, the Universe and Einstein. Coming in November: Joyce and Mafia. Coming in the new year: Stephen Hawking