January 03, 2008


Alive: The Living, Breathing Human Body Book. Paper engineer: Iain Smyth. Written by Anita Ganeri. DK Publishing. $24.99.

Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Best-Kept Secrets. By John Farndon. DK Publishing. $24.99.

      There is no shortage of cleverly designed books, or book-like entertainment packages. But they are usually designed purely for entertainment: for example, one shows kids how to create their own “magic wand” and discusses the pursuit of magic as if the world of wizards and witches is real, while another includes a backwards-running watch and talks about the supposed reality of time travel. Getting clever design to function at the service of serious content is a great deal more difficult, but that is just what DK Publishing – well-known for its highly creative approach to book engineering and appearance – manages in these two works.

      Alive, intended for ages eight and up, is deceptively short – only 12 two-page spreads. But there is a lot more here than meets the eye at first glance, and a great deal of information just below the surface of some glitzy design elements (the brain on the cover lights up when you push a button, and a rather crackly sound of a beating heart emerges when you open to the pages on breathing and blood). There are gatefolds (foldout parts of pages) galore, each expanding in considerable detail on the broader view of a portion of the human body seen on the main page. There are cutaways, foldovers and miniature booklets used to provide detailed information on broad topics. And there are marvelous 3D renderings, notably one of the skull that is both anatomically accurate and more potentially scary than a typical Halloween costume. The depth of information here is really impressive: how the pain reflex works, what the hypothalamus is, how many major muscles are involved in a smile, what is inside a nerve, precisely how the eye adjusts to bright and dim light, how far food travels through the body and how long it takes to do so, what DNA looks like and how it is copied, and a great deal more. This is a very good basic anatomy course in a highly attractive package, with excellent illustrations and a layout of colors and type sizes that makes the information easier to absorb and even more fascinating than it inherently is. There are a few minor missteps, notably that beating-heart sound, which cannot be shut off and which becomes annoying as you keep the book open to try to study the lungs, heart and circulatory system. But in most respects, this is a top-notch presentation that talks to kids without talking down to them, and makes it easier in our highly visual external world to absorb a great deal of information about the mostly invisible world inside us.

      Do Not Open, in contrast, focuses outward, and is for slightly older readers, ages 10 and up. This work looks more like a traditional book, because it is one – but it comes packaged in what looks like a jail cell, complete with bars through which you see the book’s front cover and the Do Not Open title in all capitals, in large white letters on a red background. Aside from the inherent fascination of a book called Do Not Open (the title recalls Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book), the content here – all of it cleverly and often wonderfully illustrated by a dozen artists and design groups – is simply fascinating, consisting of “all the weird and wonderful stuff they don’t want you to know about!” What kid (or adult) can resist a description like that? But this is no aliens-have-landed-in-Area-51 piece of pseudoscience (although there is a section on reported alien encounters) – this is a very carefully researched and assembled set of facts from the unusual to the bizarre, from all over the world. You never quite know what you’ll find if you open this book at random (a great way to use it). There’s a section on what flags mean (the green in Italy’s represents the land, the white the Alps and the red the Italian blood spilled in wars); there’s one on lost treasures, presented as a treasure map whose flaps you open to get more information; there are the theories about the strange disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste in 1872; there is a primer on creating your very own nation; there are details on how Houdini did one of his most amazing escapes, and how everyday magicians manage some of their most interesting tricks; there is a wonderful foldout showing everything that happens behind the scenes during a theatrical performance; there is a comic strip on the curse of Tutankhamun; there is an analysis of the Jack the Ripper murders; there’s information on the additives in a typical chicken sandwich; there are explanations of forms of safecracking…there is so much here that it can be exhausting to summarize, much less read straight through. But like any good encyclopedia, Do Not Open is not meant to be read the way you read a novel. It’s wonderful either for pure serendipity – just open it at random and follow where your curiosity leads you – or as a place in which you can follow the table of contents to look up things that are spooky, spine-chilling or simply strange. And this book is decidedly not just for kids: the analysis of Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors would do credit to any book about art for adults, and the explanation of how the Rosetta Stone was deciphered will be enthralling for anyone of any age. Highly recommended.

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