When young Henry Adams left school he felt "no sensation but one of unqualified joy that this experience was ended". But that was far from being the end of his schooling. His whole life was to be his education - and his autobiography The Education of Henry Adams (Penguin Classics pound;8.99) is a neglected American masterpiece.
Born in Boston in 1838, the son of a diplomat, he travelled widely as a journalist and later became a historian at Harvard. His eloquent Education is written in the third person and has something in common with Wordsworth's The Prelude. It is the story of a man making sense of change, a man determined to understand where he is in history.
Jean Gooder's lengthy introduction and extensive backnotes make the volume appear forbidding and some of Adams' observations (such as those on science and economics) have passed their sell-by date but his asides remain sharp and pertinent. Of Harvard: "The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught."
The work of one of the most famous educational gurus is reassessed in a new edition of Margaret A Boden's Piaget (Fontana pound;6.99). So far as I can remember, back in the early sixties, we were told Piaget could write no wrong. Now we know that he "grossly underestimated the cognitive organization of the baby's mind". In other words, he never noticed when the babies he observed were having him on. That said, his work remains a key part of any child psychology course and Professor Boden's critical commentary is equally obligatory.
Somewhat less necessary is Kenneth McLeish's great ragbag of a book, Key Ideas in Human Thought (Bloomsbury pound;12.99). It contains 2,500 essays by 30 academics, authors and pundits on the supposedly most influential ideas of all time. Contrastive analysis, control theory and convertibility may be key ideas in linguistics, electrical engineering and economics but who would turn to the one book for an explanation of them?
That said, it's the sort of book that could come up trumps just when you need a handy explanation. The same might be said of Myths of the World, a thematic anthology by Michael Jordan (Kyle Cathie pound;7.99). For the anthropologist or student of comparative religion rather than the general reader, it details the major myths from all five continents and compares, for example, creation myths from Hindu, Egyptian, Aztec, West African and American Sioux traditions.
Finally, three reference paperbacks that are certainly for the general reader and all of which are highly practical. The Good English Guide by Godfrey Howard (Macmillan pound;12.99) follows in the tradition of Fowler and Partridge. Organised like a dictionary, it is a guide to English usage for the nineties. More expensive than the similar Guide to Better English (Bloomsbury pound;4.99) which I reviewed a few months back, it is nevertheless wittier in the way it debates whether we can start to boldly split infinitives and say how pate is different from, to or than terrine.
It also has a robust attitude to four letter words but is positively coy alongside The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Slang by Jonathon Green (Macmillan pound;6.99). A certain type of teenager may fall with hysterics upon its precise definitions of 45 derivatives of the f-word (some of them mind-bogglingly imaginative); the ageing fogey (myself included) will be grateful for discreet explanations of a mojo and a zol (they're to do with drugs) and glad to be warned that the verb to balaclava is a synonym for, well, the f-word.