September 16, 2010


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Book learning
Science, math and more just in time for back-to-school
By Lisa Parsons

In the Back to School spirit, here’s a backpack’s worth of current books meant to enlighten, educate, inform or inspire. Plus one about education itself, and one for recess.

Newton’s Notebook: The Life, Times, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, by Joel Levy, 2010, Running Press, 159 pages.
Here’s a biography with a bunch of excerpts of Newton’s writings sprinkled throughout. Its good points: a Ye Olde English look to the type and coloring, decent pictures and diagrams, digestible-sized sections, small physical dimensions of the book. Detractions: tiny print and attention-scattering and sometimes barely relevant sidebars and insets. Mostly this book made me realize how much I got out of Newton and the Counterfeiter, by Thomas Levenson, which came out in paperback in April. I learned a lot about Newton from that book; this book seems to contain much of the same information but in such scattered, chopped-up form that it’s hard to latch on to. And yet it’s not distilled enough to be a point-by-point overview. The promise of the book’s title and style excited me, but it detracted from the substance. C

Hot X: Algebra Exposed, by Danica McKellar, 2010, Hudson Street Press, 432 pages.
With its drawings of flowery high-heels and its “Are you boy crazy?” surveys, Hot X is clearly meant as a girls-only guide to math. Which is unfortunate, because its calm, personable step-by-step explanations could benefit boys just as much as girls.

In the introduction, The Wonder Years star McKellar writes, “I’m here to tell you that giving up on ourselves just because of our own stereotypes and limited imaginations is a far more destructive force than any challenge or obstacle ‘out there.’” But I can’t help thinking her approach is to keep the stereotypes and limited imaginations, and just not give up. Hot X gives me an uneasy feeling that its message is “You can be an airhead and get an A in math!”

Hot X does a good job of finding different ways to approach algebra topics, upping the odds that a reader will get it. But why all the word problems have to concern shopping and fashion, I don’t know. Oh, well; maybe Hot X can teach math and provide fodder for a discussion of gender differences.

I mean, really:
“We’ve all been tempted to dumb ourselves down around a guy so that he’ll feel extra smart and special. [We have?] But is it worth it? No way!”

On the one hand, I believe in meeting people where they are.

On the other hand, you don’t have to stay there.

I know there’s an audience for this and, as they say, if just one person is helped, it’s worth it. Thumb through it at the store or library and see if it speaks to you. Hot X covers functions and relations, lines, word problems, exponents, polynomials and quadratic equations, and includes testimonials from women who used to be intimidated by math and now use it in their high-flying careers — some not even involving fashion.

“Get good at these, and you’ll be an algebra star!” McKellar says. I don’t want to know algebra in order to be an algebra star. I want to know algebra because it’s part of nature and it’s magical and it explains bridges and baseballs and tortoises and hares and, yes, probably how to build the best high heel for your shoe. My one caveat, though, is that I am not a 12-year-old girl. Was once, probably wouldn’t have loved this book at the time. But I can’t say for sure that Hot X isn’t a helpful outreach to some girls — though at best it’s just an outreach and needs to be replaced by something more serious once they’re on board. For me, I give it a C-.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, adapted by Seymour Chwast, 2010, Bloomsbury, 127 pages.
For anyone required to read the Divine Comedy this year, I recommend getting your hands on a copy of this illustrated version as a companion guide. It’s a little weird that Dante is a trenchcoat-wearing pipe-smoking whiskey-drinking typewriter-wielding 1920s character, and Virgil, his guide, is a rotund black-suited bowler-hatted man with a cane. But it’s cool and it simplifies things enough to help you grasp the story while enjoying the art.

The book is clearly meant to explicate the original work, perhaps not fully but to an introductory extent. Virgil and Dante stand next to a group of sinners and announce, for us the readers, what the scene is showing. Where it might not be clear, signs and labels let us know what we’re looking at. (Like a river of “human excrement” in the eighth circle.) The Purgatory portion gets quite complicated and a little tedious, as purgatory is apt to do, and this book is not going to make it any more thrilling than Dante did. But it’ll be easier to read and maybe help engage your mind.

Dante and Virgil head to the first circle of hell via stairs to the Limbo Express subway.

The feud between political factions of Florence is depicted as a shootout between gangsters.

For a while in the middle it’s just page after page of creative ways to torture sinners, and creative ways to draw them.

I can’t imagine who would need to own this book; it doesn’t analyze or add to the story and in fact it’s a severe simplification. I suppose it’s a must-read or must-display-on-the-coffee-table for literature professors. But as a study guide, it’s right on — if only it came in a cheaper version, as most study guides don’t go for $20 or take up this much space in the backpack. Note that the cover is in color but the inside is black and white. B-

The Constitution of the United States of America, inscribed and illustrated by Sam Fink, 2010, Welcome Books, 136 pages.
Although its purpose is obviously not to help you cram for a test, I daresay you might remember parts of the Constitution better from perusing this book than from a so-called study guide. And it would be useful for observance of Constitution Day, established by Congress in 2004. Previously called Citizenship Day, Sept. 17 marks the day the Constitution was signed in 1787.

Granted, you’ll need to know some context already or get it elsewhere. But something about the lovingly drawn calligraphy and the deeply inked drawings makes reading Article I that much more intense. OK, so the framers weren’t printing theirs in hardcover with color illustrations — never mind a deluxe numbered edition at $500 — but neither were they printing it in mass-market bland-fonted paperbacks. And this book has some real weight, it takes time to read, and it tries hard to feel old-fashioned, which I think sets the right tone.

There’s a whiff of glorification, as if the message and story of the Constitution weren’t enough on their own — in a sidebar next to Article III (the Supreme Court) Fink has chosen to note Benjamin Franklin’s growing conviction “that God governs in the affairs of men.” The illustration for Article II Section 2 (the president’s role) shows the colonial flag atop a stack of boxes labeled “Precept by precept, precept by precept, Line by line, Line by line; Here a little, there a little. ISAIAH XXVIII 10.” That’s all, no explanation.

Many of the illustrations involve doves, and just as many involve angry-looking eagles. Most of the Articles are presented without commentary, but a few, like III, have side notes offering context or fun facts.

I especially like the way the book opens: with Benjamin Franklin’s address to the delegates. It’s a letter that was read aloud on that Sept. 17, in which Franklin says the Constitution isn’t perfect but is amazingly good, and would they please stop arguing and sign it. “I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present,” Franklin begins, but then he notes all the times in his life that he’s changed his mind, and says we must all “pay more Respect to the Judgment of others” and not think ourselves infallible.

Sam Fink also came up with an illustrated Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address and Book of Exodus. The current book was first published in black-and-white in 1987, then in color in 2006. Those were oversized; this new release, also in full color, is a more accessible trade edition (well, the $500 collector’s edition maybe not so accessible). And even though it misspells Capitol Hill in the Amendment XXVII illustration, I give it an A.

Higher Education?: How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, 2010, Times Books, 271 pages.
They’re not going to like this over in the faculty lounge. Well, the adjnncts will, if they’re allowed in the faculty lounge.

Queens College professor Andrew Hacker and Columbia University teacher Claudia Dreifus would like America’s college’s and universities to abolish tenure; get rid of formal college sports; stop offering “vocational majors” like “hospitality management” and even engineering; forget about research; and devote themselves pretty much exclusively to the teaching of science, philosophy and other liberal arts. Any other activities should have to be justified as truly, directly supporting that endeavor.

The result, they say, would be a better-educated populace and far lower college costs. Learn your engineering and hotel management on the job; spend college broadening your mind, building a foundation of science and humanities that will serve you well on that job. “We’ve met former business majors, now nearing middle age, who say they regret not having studied philosophy while at college,” the authors write. “We have yet to meet a philosophy major who felt he or she should have chosen business.”

And notice I said broadening your mind. Not narrowing. Do away with the ridiculously arcane research specialties—at least don’t subject undergrads to them. They are a product of the notion that “Good teaching is only possible if professors are also active in research. We must have heard this mantra, or variants of it, from at least a dozen deans and department chairs,” Hacker and Dreifus write. “There’s only one problem. Or rather two. First, factually, it’s wrong. And second, its consequences are pernicious.”

Their book is very colloquial in tone, very no-nonsense. No surprise: they avoid being highly academic about their arguments, though they do bring out plenty of numbers. Sometimes the specific arguments seem pretty tight, sometimes less so, relying on selected data. The core of it is common sense and opinion. And, man, does it feel like a gust of fresh air.

There is plenty for discussion here, the reading is easy, and everyone involved in academics should make time to read it. Except the students; let their mortgaged-to-the-hilt parents read it instead. The students are too busy, either partying to oblivion or scurrying on the hamster wheel. Here’s an excerpt they’ll like: “It is common to hear professors boasting of assigning several hundred pages of reading a week. There’s no way that much material can be absorbed in seven days. More will be retained from two carefully chosen articles.”

And from this book. Too many typos make it feel a little rushed toward the end — were they trying to beat Mark C. Taylor’s Crisis on Campus (Knopf, Aug. 31) to press? — but it also feels real. Read and consider. A-

Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics, by Richard Thompson, 2010, Andrews McMeel, 197 pages.
My new favorite comic has been right under my nose all this time and I didn’t realize it.

I was maybe 10 percent of the way in when I thought, “this even feels a little like Calvin & Hobbes” (which, as all comics-readers know, is the highest possible praise). But it’s no mere knockoff; this comic is its own man. It’s just that it shares some of the same playfulness and cockeyed way of looking at things, a similar feel for how kids move in the world. It was after that (I swear) that I saw the mention on the back cover that Bill Watterson has praised Cul de Sac. And Mo Willems, of Knuffle Bunny fame — which is perfect.

Cul de Sac has long appeared in the Boston Globe, which I read daily (comics included, at least a few staples). Yet I rarely read it. After discovering this book, I made it a point to read Cul de Sac in the Globe each day. It’s not as good there. I think it works best when you start from the beginning with the book’s introductory strips showing you who’s who and what’s what. It also works best when you read several strips at a time, getting a whole storyline in one sitting. And then of course there’s the size of the strip. Read them big, as in the book, read them small, as in the paper — it makes a big difference, particularly for a strip like Cul de Sac, whose somewhat messy, scratchy style of drawing needs breathing room. The style is perfect for these characters and their lives; what needs to change is not the drawing but the space.

Something else that distinguishes the book is the occasional commentary Thompson writes below some strips, as in, “The word ‘cheese’ is comedy gold, at least among children. So is the word ‘pants.’ ‘Cheese pants’ would be comedy gold of almost blinding brilliance.’” Later he writes, “‘Pancakes’ is also one of those words that’s comedy gold. ‘Waffles’ is only comedy silver.’”

Also comedy silver is Mr. Danders, the class guinea pig.

Wait, back up. The setting: a preschool named Blisshaven Academy. The characters: Alice Otterloop, age 4, and her family and fellow preschoolers.

And the guinea pig, Mr. Danders. He’s brilliant because he’s spent so many years in school. But when someone takes him outdoors one day, he gets lost and must make his own way home. Mr. Danders is often misidentified or ignored, never fully recognized. One of my favorites is when some high schoolers encounter Mr. Danders and they try to figure out what they’re seeing. “It’s a rat on a hoagie bun.” … “Wrong.” … “It’s a marmot on a baguette.” “WRONG.”…

IMHO, marmot on a baguette is comedy platinum.

I also like the scene where Alice says “I wish my eyes could extend on stalks” and her playmate says “Well, how hard have you tried?” A+ —Lisa Parsons