October 17, 2013


Why? Answers to Everyday Scientific Questions. By Joel Levy. Zest Books. $10.99.

How Not to Be a Dick: An Everyday Etiquette Guide. By Meghan Doherty. Zest Books. $16.99.

     Here are two books containing some things that everyone should know, but not everyone does. And not everyone knows whom to ask. So in Why? Answers to Everyday Scientific Questions, Joel Levy tackles, in very simple but not inaccurate form, questions about why water freezes and iron rusts, why the dinosaurs died out, why the sea is salty, why blood is red, why humans cannot eat grass or breathe under water, why Earth is round, why some objects float, why the sea appears blue and so does the sky, why we forget – a not-very-organized compendium of curiosity-based questions about this and that and the other thing. The book is in three somewhat overlapping sections called “Nature and the Earth,” “The Human Body and Mind,” and “Physics and Space,” although “Why does the earth quake?” is in the first section and “Why does the wind blow?” in the third. If you don’t mind the rather arbitrary assignment of questions and the likelihood that one you may wonder about may very well not be included (there are only 54 in the book), then Why? Answers to Everyday Scientific Questions will give you some straightforward information in a format that provides a very short answer immediately and a slightly longer explanation thereafter. “Why do tides ebb and flow? Tides ebb and flow because the tidal pull of the moon remains stationary while the earth continues to spin around.” “Why can’t we hear dog whistles? We can’t hear dog whistles because they are too high pitched for human ears.” “Why do we dream? Because the brain is such a complex organ, nobody has a conclusive explanation for why we dream.” That last example is an exception: by and large, Levy does explain what science knows about a variety of subjects, and his longer explanations – which are still short, often just a page or two – contain some interesting facts. The discussion of dreams, longer than most at five pages because it is inconclusive, says, for example, that most of us have at least four dreams per night, with each lasting five to 34 minutes. Not all the questions are phrased sufficiently carefully. For example, “Why are we running out of oil?” should really be more along the lines of, “Why are we running out of usable oil?” – since at some point the oil remaining underground or under water will be too expensive or impractical to recover, even though it will still be present. By and large, though, for a once-over-lightly look at a selection of common scientific questions, Levy’s book will provide some solid answers about which interested readers can get more information on their own.

     Meghan Doherty’s is another helpful but less-than-comprehensive guide to everyday life, its focus not on science but on sociology and interpersonal relationships. How Not to Be a Dick has an obvious straightforward meaning, as well as being a pun on the male sex organ, but there is more to it than that, because Doherty illustrates the book, from the cover right through the appendix (“A Typology of Dicks”), with a pair of preteen “Dick and Jane” characters who act out the various situations, hints and recommendations. This is sometimes effective and sometimes flat-out weird. Dick and Jane as office workers, with Jane contemplating an office romance using three different thought balloons while having the same expression in them all? Dick at a party, on the phone, telling his mom, “I’M WASTED!”? Then, on the same page, Dick riding a tricycle while carrying car keys? Jane at a bar, saying, “I would like something savory, my good man – and with gin!”? And telling Dick, “I am mad about so many things that I’m not articulating right now!”? The illustrations are what make How Not to Be a Dick unusual, but they often interfere with the reasonable and straightforward messages that Doherty provides. Those messages come in chapters about relationships, home, school, work and play, and in ones called “In Transit” and “On the Internet.” There’s nothing wrong, or unusual, in most of what Doherty says: “If you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face, don’t say it at all. That goes double for texting and tweeting.” “Take the opportunities that birthdays and other office parties provide to talk about things other than work or to pass along praise you just didn’t get a chance to share during your busy day.” “Don’t ride your bike with your headphones on. This makes it difficult to hear cars and pedestrians.” “If you find people have no idea what you’re talking about because your only topic of conversation is funny online videos, you’re on the internet too much.” “Before you start each workday, make sure you get plenty of sleep and wake up with enough time to get ready at your own speed.” There is nothing remotely revelatory here, and it is perhaps testimony to our modern social consciousness, or lack thereof, that a book filled with common sense (much of which comes down to “treat others as you want them to treat you”) should be construed as a guidebook. Still, the advice is sensible and clearly presented, despite the oddities occasioned by the Dick-and-Jane drawings, and someone looking for a plain-language etiquette guide to everyday life will find it here.

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