Book Review: "How to" makes the easy things hard as a great mental exercise

There is a simple way to do things, but that’s not the idea behind Randall Munroe’s latest book.  Munroe, the man behind science-themed webcomic titled xkcd, proposes something much more ridiculous and complicated. How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems tries to relatively simple problems in the most ridiculous ways while still technically trying to achieve the task.

For example, how do you cross a river?  You could ford the river or try to swim across.  There might be a boat or a bridge.  How To suggests trying more extreme methods:  drying it out with thousands or millions of hairdryers, or trying to divert it away from you before you cross it.

So, in the spirit of How To, here’s how I’m writing this review: 

Step 1: Read the book.  Look at each word.  To be certain of what it is saying, look up each word in the dictionary and make note of the possible meanings of each word, and how each word fits from sentence to sentence, and ultimately put it all together as a whole.

Step 2: Determine whether I liked the book.  Compare it to other books I have read, so I must read other books, both within the same genre and outside.  This means repeating Step 1, but with Randall Munroe’s previous books What If? and Thing Explainer, as well as totally unrelated books.

Step 3: Come up with a rating system to convey to other readers that I enjoyed the book and wish to express my opinion that they ought to read the book themselves.  Evaluate all existing methods: Thumbs up? Can’t print it.  Star ratings?  I don’t have that font in my word processor.  Rate it by numbers?  Out of 10? Out of 20? Out of 300?  Conclude that just saying you should read it should be good enough.

Step 4:  State my opinion: I like science books, and Russell Munroe makes some of the most accessible and most interesting ones.  If you ever have trouble understanding a concept, he has a natural ability to make it simple.  In How To, he makes simple ideas difficult just for the fun of it, just to see where his imagination could take him even if he stayed within the bounds of reasonable science.  If you have a curious mind, give How To a shot.

Steven is a Library Technician II at the Cambie Branch.  


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