/ Maggie Koerth-Baker / 2 pm Wed, Nov 9 2011
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  • Science Book Club: National Geographic's The Big Idea

    Science Book Club: National Geographic's The Big Idea

    I have a weird relationship with coffee-table books. In general, I kind of think of them as clutter—like a particularly heavy and ungainly pile of junk mail that you can't just throw away. They're books to flip through and never really read again. For the rest of eternity, they just sit there, getting in your way while ostensibly telling your guests something about your personality and taste. To be quite honest, I lost most of my interest in coffee table books right around the point where I became old enough to conceivably own a coffee table.

    But when I was a kid, coffee table books were magic.

    Between the ages of 7 and 13, I owned more coffee table books than I will probably ever own again in my life. My favorite was a fat Readers' Digest tome on great disasters, full of prints of the Titanic schematics, medieval doctors lancing the buboes of plague victims, and photographs of the serene destruction at Lake Nyos. I read that thing so many times that I eventually broke the spine.

    I still think kids and coffee table books go together like peanut butter and jelly. In late grade school and junior high, you're at an age where you still enjoy picture books but are looking for a bigger, deeper view of the world than most picture books provide. Coffee table books bridge that gap, offering grown-up perspectives in kid-friendly packages. Whether the topic is art, architecture, history, culture, or science—coffee table books can be a kid's first step into a subject they'll come to love as an adult.

    Now that you know that context, let me tell you what I thought about one of National Geographic's newest coffee table books—The Big Idea: How Breakthroughs of the Past Shape the Future

    The Big Idea is really about the history of scientific advancement. Working backwards from a modern technology like Linux, or gene therapy, or private manned spacecraft, the book takes you on step-by-step through all the previous breakthroughs that had to happen before our modern world could exist.

    This is all broken up by general field of thought. So the section on communications and information technology starts in 1994 with Linux and ends in 3000 BCE, with the abacus. Along the way, there are sidebars that introduce you to some key concepts and people, such as quantum computing and the great Muslim engineer Al-Jazari.

    Another example: The section on transportation starts with private manned spaceflight and ends with the wheel. There are detours along the way acquainting you with terraforming, Daniel Bernouli, and intelligent traffic control.

    The Big Idea is a big book and, as you might guess from these two chapter summaries, it's packed end-to-end with an incredible density of information. It's very pretty to look at, as something from National Geographic ought to be. If you put it on your coffee table, it will make people believe that you are smart. But I think it's real value lies in what it can do for a 7th grader.

    The concept here is a really good one. It's important to understand how a bunch of seemingly random ideas build on one another and lead to new questions and new discoveries. I've loved that way of thinking about the world since I read Peter Watson's The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century in college.

    Kids on their way into teenagerhood are at just the right age when that sort of view of reality would be extremely influential, and extremely welcome. They've accumulated enough facts from school that they'll be familiar with a lot of the steps on The Big Idea's timelines. But how those events and discoveries fit together will still be an entirely new world for them.

    The Big Idea can be a bit frustrating to an adult. It's full of segments that hit all the too-expected points about well-trod ideas ... and segments that only skim the surface of confusing concepts. At the same time, though, this is a book that could totally change a preteen's life. Present The Big Idea to a younger set and, suddenly, the ho-hum parts become shiny new, and the not-quite-deep-enough explanations become intriguing jumping off points—offering just enough information that you can feel smarter than your teachers, and just enough mystery that you feel the need to explore the subject further.

    Sometimes, you can't just say a book is good or not, you have to say who it is good for. The Big Idea isn't a book that gets me really excited, as an adult. But, were I about 15 years younger, I would have already had its spine good and bendy.

    Image: Intent on Energy Expelled, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 14945598@N05's photostream

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    1. Might not quite qualify as a coffee table book, as it wasn’t too big to fit on an ordinary bookshelf, but my mother had a LIFE yearbook from 1943, filled with images from that magazine, many concerning the war.  As a kid I saw a picture in that book which was a closeup of a Japanese soldier who’d been killed with a flamethrower as he popped up out of a foxhole; his charred body still leaning almost casually on his elbows.  It didn’t exactly give me nightmares (probably because it was in black and white), but I never forgot the image.

      We always had a fair number of coffee table books in the house when I was a kid, most dating from the 50s through the 70s, and though it never occurred to me before, Maggie, you’re right that they certainly appealed to us kids more than the adults.  I never saw a grown-up so much as leaf through one once, but I read them all with a voracity that was probably somewhat misplaced thereon by our home’s lack of kid-oriented picture books.

    2. Interesting thoughts Maggie, and certainly true in many instances. There are however many coffee table books that are just as suited to adults.

      I’ve got a shelf full of books that simply wouldn’t work in smaller forms, ranging from architecture to graffiti. Essentially any book that revolves mainly around photos, you just can’t beat the larger formats and glossier pages  that coffee table books allow.

    3. Some of my favorites as a kid were the Life Science Library books:  the one about Mathematics was especially magical to me, with stuff about computers and a section on topology that proved a vest wasn’t inside a jacket (and by extension to my probably-9-year-old-mind that my underwear wasn’t inside my pants!)

    4. Whaaat?  If the books you have are really volumes you’d never read again, then you bought the wrong books. Regardless of format and content.

      Most of the books I’ve bought for myself as an adult are picture and reference books. Not that I don’t like to read, but my parents supplied me with such an extensive library even before I was born that I’m still making my way through it. And when you work in illustration and animation, you need plenty of pictures to refer to.

    5. This sounds like a book I might like for my kids. Interesting to have it set up like this to show where something complex comes from..

      And I thought your point in general about coffee table books was good. I remember poring over my parents’ and grandparents’ huge books as a child, yet I mostly use reference books in a slightly smaller format these days (and with somewhat fewer pictures). I don’t need to show others my books to show my character (they already know me as slightly strange) and don’t really like moving huge books with me when I move house, so I tend to stay away from collecting books (and gave away most of my library a few years ago. That saved moving a few heavy boxes…)

    6. I agree with what Itsumishi said above.  There are some great coffee table books that are useful as adults and some serve more than just as a dust collector on my coffee table.  One standard coffee table book I keep around is always good for a peruse, or at a minimum more than casual glance.  It is of a modern artist and stories about his art.  Visitors always seem to want to pick it up.  Its looks good and it dresses the place up a bit… and it gives the illusion of us being smart!

    7. Several years ago, I spotted a book in a local used bookstore.  The title was Hot Cars of the 70’s.  I have read this single tome more than any other book in my current collection.  Why? A combination of great pictures, well-presented facts, and beautiful cars (that last one is opinion).  A year and a half later, I had bought my first car from the era, a 1976 Toyota – based on the description in the book, as I had never driven one before.

      Coffee table books are a good introduction for anyone who doesn’t want to toil through a punishing number of pages of text on a subject, or surf the internet until comatose.  They allow interest to build without a great amount of previous knowledge (I was a fan of cars before, but now I am a true car-geek, especially about cars from 1971-79).

    8. Definitely true for me as well. I’m guessing the coffee table books at my parents’ house were purchased for this reason, as I don’t believe either one of my parents ever looked at them extensively but I loved them.

      It’s surprisingly not that tough to still be enchanted by this type of book these days – after all, Wikipedia offers much the same thing (if you follow the links, at least for well-written articles, you’ll get the whole chain of events through history) and much more besides. But it doesn’t offer the polish and the huge glossy photographs and diagrams, which are key. Regardless, I’m sure we all here occasionally lose a few hours on Wikipedia doing much the same thing we did with coffee table books as a kid (just… one… more… article…)

      Finally, I do love this type of presentation of information – much like the Connections series from James Burke. I watched that on TV as a kid whenever it came on and loved it. Hopefully if/when I have kids, they’ll have the attention span to watch Connections with me :)

    9. It is certainly important to comprehend that ideas build on each other and have allowed progress to happen. For me that awareness dawned through hours of playing the computer game Civilization in college. 

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