Studying a subject like biology can open up a whole range of different options for a student. Yes, of course, you can progress to become a proper research scientist, but you can also go on to achieve careers in medicine, psychology, and sport. It’s an incredibly diverse and rewarding discipline, but, as it ain’t the easiest you’ll engage with at school, there’s one important thing that you can’t forget to do: revise.
Whilst biology may offer fascinating opportunities, most of these demand a proven record of excellence (think about medicine, for example, something notoriously difficult to pursue through university). So, if that’s where you want to be, you’re going to need to get your biology books out and knuckle down.
But enough of the scary stuff. Part of revision should be to seek and cultivate the joy that your subject brings: it’s tough to get through a biology course or biology exam without enjoying it even slightly. So, look around you and think about all the things that biology does for you – in your genes and DNA, but also in the growth of trees, plants, and animals. Almost everything you can think about is biological deep down.
Here, we are going to talk about the best books you can use to unlock the fascinating world of the biological science – and to rock your examination at the same time. We have textbooks (which we’ll keep to the end), magazines, and some of the classics of scientific literature – which should give your personal revision the inspiration it needs to be successful.
If books aren’t your cup of tea (although, honestly, they should be), or you are looking for a diversity of resources to revise for your biology topics, we have articles on the best websites for biology revision, the best biology apps and podcasts, and a guide to general biology revision resources.
Did we really evolve from the same thing as gorillas?
Let’s start with the interesting ones (as we probably all agree that a biology textbook is not the most compelling way to revise). Here, we have put together some of the most compelling, readable, and interesting biology books around, not to mention the most ground-breaking and influential.
Many students are a little scared of reading the works of actual scientists, as they have the impression of being a little intimidating. Don’t let them be, for two reasons.
Firstly, biology is not something that happens just in the classroom: it is something that many, many people are interested in, and it’s happening all around us. Secondly, these writers are actually fun to read – something that textbooks often, simply, aren’t.
Take a deep breath and read altogether the ridiculously long title of the book by probably the most famous biologist in history: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. This text by Charles Darwin literally invented evolutionary biology.
So, what? Whilst the title might be a little off-putting, this text was written for the general public and is consequently highly readable, clear, and filled with fascinating examples. Darwin’s discoveries changed the way everyone thought about the history of life and laid the bedrock for what you now learn in your biology class.
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Modern biology would be nothing without this text.
If you are not so interested in starting from the beginning of the history of evolution, try the work of pop scientist and controversialist, Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s biggest fan.
His works engage essentially with moral issues from the perspective of evolutionary biology – and he is a brilliant writer. So, if you are interested in the ways in which genetics influences the daily life of human beings, check this one out: it’s accessible, fun, and really important.
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Rachel Carson was a conservationist, marine biologist, and best-selling author whose work and activism brought environmentalism to the public conscience. If it wasn’t for this book, people would care a lot less about ecology, biodiversity, and the protection of the earth.
Published in 1962, Silent Spring took aim at the chemical industry which, Carson argued, was causing widespread damage to the environment through the development and use of pesticides. Its larger message was that humans are having a massively detrimental effect on the planet.
Really, one of the most jaw-dropping parts of biology is the study of bacteria, or bacteriology. According to Ed Yong, our organism is covered in over forty trillion bacteria. That’s on one body. If you think about what happens on all living organisms, the whole diversity of life, the mind boggles at the numbers of these teeny-weeny microorganisms.
Ed Yong’s books studies all of this and tells the story of this ecosystem of microscopic creatures with page-turning narratives of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Revise your knowledge of microorganisms with these biology books.
If you’re not that into biology but you want to dip in and out of a broad range of biology topics in preparation for your exams, try using science magazines – which will cover all aspects of life on Earth, from introductory articles on plant biology to more in-depth pieces on the origin of life. These will include the newest developments in biology too – and they are written for the general reader, so you won’t struggle at all.
The New Scientist is not a dedicated biology magazine (a clue is sort of in the name), as its features cover everything from space, chemistry, health, and the environment. Yet, you’ll find in amongst these topics some incredibly interesting articles about all things biology – from molecular biology to zoology.
It’s a very prestigious magazine, and most of the content is online – but there is a special discount on subscriptions for students, which you might want to take a look at.
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The Biologist is the magazine of the Royal Society of Biology, the British institute for everything biological. Alongside news reports from the biology community, The Biologist has opinion pieces on ethical and political dilemmas that face the sciences and the natural world. This is a great to way to consider your own thoughts on scientific issues.
Sure, you can subscribe for the gorgeously glossy magazine itself, but you can also read features online – you’ll just miss out on the pictures.
If you like your science with sumptuous visuals, try the American Scientist, another magazine that, like the New Scientist, covers all aspects of the discipline. From addiction to rewilding to extra-terrestrial life to cell structure, American Scientist provides coverage of all major research and ideas in science, with a very nicely designed website.
Find the biology resources you need in a library.
And so, we come to it, the nemesis of fun biology study: the textbook. Before you groan, we already know that these are the bane of a student’s life.
However, they are also super useful to help you prepare for your exams, as, funnily enough, textbooks are usually designed with the exam in mind, endorsed by the exam board, and written for an audience such as you. So, quit the whining, because they are sort of indispensable.
Without further ado, then, here are the most reliable biology textbooks for all biology qualifications.
CGP are well known as revision aids for any subject. They generally cover the main content of the exam in a very clear style, and in the most entertaining way possible. For both GCSE and A Level, they will sort you right out.
What is good about CGP books is that, alongside the helpful content, they have practice books too, filled with mock questions, quizzes, and model answers to guide you through your biology course.
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As with most things published by the Oxford University Press, this guide to AQA’s Biology A Level is very reliable, comprehensive, and easy to follow. Here, you will find information on all parts of the syllabus as well as handy tips on how best to answer the questions in the exam. A very helpful resource.
Not many of you will be studying for the International Baccalaureate, but for those who are, your best bet is the OSC Biology revision guides. With quizzes, exam preparation guidance, clarity on the fundamental parts of the course, and help to answer long-form questions.
As with all other exam boards, you will be able to find dedicated, board-specific textbooks for OCR and Edexcel courses. Those by the publisher, Pearson, are excellent for the Edexcel course, whilst the OUP’s OCR textbook is the best around for those studying for that exam board.