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Last minute Explainy Gift Idea: The Way We Work

I’ve been enjoying David Macaulay’s new book, The Way We Work: Getting To Know the Amazing Human Body. As in his 1988 classic The Way Things Work (and revised 1998 edition, The New Way Things Work), Macaulay explains his subject through well-crafted illustrations and text.

My parents bought me The Way Things Work when I was 12, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. So I’m very happy to see Macaulay at it again. And sheesh, what a subject. I’ve explained aspects of human physiology before, and it’s a killer. It will be great to have this master explainer’s effort on the reference shelf.

Way We Work Respiratory and Circulatory Coaster

There are many things to love about Macaulay’s work. Just a few:

  1. He uses witty and helpful visual metaphors, but never lets them take over. Some of the machines in The Way Things Work are giant-sized, with little people and mammoths operating them. This subtly makes very small things less intimidating and makes explanations more memorable. But Macaulay doesn’t bend over for the metaphor by tacking on a story-line or the like. The new book sometimes uses the same small-people technique (sans mammoths), but Macaulay resisted the urge to cast the whole thing as a Fantastic-Voyage-style tour of the body. Instead, he deploys a metaphor only when it works (for example, the above drawing showing the circulatory and respiratory systems as a roller coaster). For some body parts, he draws straight-forward anatomical pictures.
  2. He starts with the core components and works his way up. In The Way We Work, he opens with an explanation of atoms, so he can explain molecules, so he can explain proteins and acids, so he can explain cells, so he can explain body parts and functions. Lesser physiology overviews jump straight to labeling the parts of the body, in “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone” style. But if you don’t understand DNA and cells first, knowing terminology won’t help you understand anything significant about the body. It’s nice that he lays a foundation of fundamentals.
  3. He respects expertise but is not an expert. His extensive research included consulting with several physiology experts, and even observing operations. He also brought a science writer, Richard Walker, as a co-author. This is an ideal combination — as a reader, you can count on the book’s accuracy, but the explainer can relate to your layman’s ignorance. Macaulay went on a six-year journey to understand the body, using only standard-issue, non-doctor knowledge, and this is his report on what he found out.

I noticed there are some lukewarm reviews from Macaulay fans on Amazon. The main two complaints so far are that the colored illustrations fall short of his past work and that the text is too advanced for kids. There’s something to both of these points, but I think Macaulay had good reason to make these choices. I do like the aesthetic quality of the hard ink lines of The Way Things Work better than the fuzzier colored-pencil style in The Way We Work. But biology doesn’t have the hard lines you see in machinery, so his approach makes sense to me. Here’s artwork from each, side by side:

The Way Things Work and The Way We Work

As for the age-appropriateness, I expect Houghton Mifflin is responsible for marketing this as a kid’s book. Macaulay told NPR that he didn’t have any age in mind for his audience, but wrote it for himself (adding “I don’t know how to do it any other way.”) To me, it seems like his priorities were to be explicit, thorough, and accurate. In any case, the book will certainly be tough for younger readers, but that’s inherent in the subject matter. Better to challenge some readers than dumb it down, I’d say.

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