Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: 100 DIAGRAMS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, by Scott Christianson

Scott Christianson's 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod will be a good book to spur curiosity: it's wide-ranging, both in historical focus (as the subtitle makes plain) and in terms of the types of diagrams it covers, from scientific discoveries (DNA Double Helix by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Odile Crick, 1953 [pages 190-191]) to information display techniques (Exploded-View Diagram, by Mariano Taccola, c. 1450 [pp. 70-71]) to theater design (The Castle of Perseverance, c. 1405-1425 [pp. 68-69]).

However, I'm sure that the title is entirely accurate. Did The Voynich Manuscript (c. 1404-1438, pp. 66-67), an illuminated manuscript written in a still-undecipherable code or invented language, really "change the world"? Did Leonardo da Vinci's unrealized plans for Helicopter and Flying Machine (c. 1493-1505, pp. 76-77)? They're fascinating documents, undoubtedly; but they don't really rise to the level of "world-changing," I don't think. 100 Diagrams and Concepts that are Really Quite Interesting would be a more appropriate title, but it's not as marketable.

For a book that celebrates the importance of visual representations, the book's own design is troubling. Each diagram is given its own two-page spread: One page for the diagram (and caption, although that caption is sometimes on the facing page), and one page for text. So far so good, but: Each text page begins with the title of the diagram, its author (if known), a one-sentence "highlight summary" of the object and its importance, and the date of the diagram; the paper is colored light grey rather than white. The date, in the upper corner of the page, and the highlight summary are printed in a grey that's only slightly darker than the background color of the page. The date is in a very large typeface, but the highlight summary, at perhaps 7-point size, is very hard to read without strong light (or, perhaps, a loupe). What's worse, the highlight summary usually repeats information in the longer essay on the page, which quite often is repeated yet again in the image caption. Thus, you often read the same information three times on the same two-page spread. No one could expect a lot of depth in a book like this - with only a few hundred words per essay, the book serves as an "intellectual sampler," encouraging further research - so repeating content so often in such a small space really seems like a misuse of precious informational real estate.

Still, the book reminded me of a lot of things I have always meant to read more about, and it introduced me to things I simply hadn't considered before (I had never thought about the importance of "Graded Sewing Patterns" [pp. 144-145] before, but Ebeneezer Butterick's 1863 invention made it easier for people [usually women] to make fashionable clothing for their families - no small feat!). As a pupu platter of interesting concepts, this book makes for a few diverting afternoons, and it just might encourage you to dig further and learn more about some of these fascinating - if not always world-changing - drawings.

100 Diagrams That Changed the World:
From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod
by Scott Christianson
Plume, 2012
ISBN-10: 0452298776
ISBN-13: 978-0452298774
224 pages, $25.00