[7 October 2009]
You’d have to think pretty well of yourself to publish something called The Knowledge Book but the good folks at National Geographic are not exactly shrinking violets. Their various enterprises—which stretch from the famous yellow-bordered magazine to a subscription television channel to research grants and educational projects worldwide—present an aura of sophistication, social concern and useful knowledge which is catnip to a certain type of individual. You know who you are, and I know I’m one of them too: I can’t get enough of glossy wildlife photos, well-made maps and stories which make the most arcane subjects understandable.
So I’m square in the center of the target market for The Knowledge Book and I have to say that it delivers on what the title promises. It doesn’t try to be a dictionary or encyclopedia loaded with facts arranged in alphabetical order. Rather it organizes human knowledge into five categories: The Blue Planet, Discoveries and Inventions, Social Life, Mind and Soul, and The Arts—and presents an overview of each topic with lots of color photographs and diagrams (1,500 illustrations in total, according to the publisher), maps, and boxed discussions of special topics.
The authors have made a point to include current “in the news” topics as well as the basics of each field, making The Knowledge Book like a textbook in brief for each topic, but better written and much more engaging, not to mention quite a bit cheaper. They also made a concerted effort to include pictures of men and women of all races to illustrate the articles, and to include non-Western as well as Western locations.
The Blue Planet covers the universe and the earth, with generous helpings of astronomy, geology and oceanography. Discoveries and Inventions is actually an overview of the sciences and math, with separate sections for biology, chemistry, physics and technology, and mathematics (including, rather briefly, statistics in a section headed with the unfortunate title of “when numbers lie”). Social Life includes politics, law and economy, with the US and British systems of government covered in particular detail. Mind and Soul includes religion (both Eastern and Western), philosophy and psychology. The Arts provides a lightning-round overview of visual arts, architecture, literature, music and film.
Of course you can’t include all the details if you want to cover so much in a single book, but most of the brief presentations are remarkably clear and to the point. The scientific chapters are particularly good, giving cogent explanations of topics as diverse as how a semiconductor works and what the endosymbiont theory has to say about the origin of eukaryotic cells. And there’s no pussyfooting around controversial topics: a section on the earth’s atmosphere includes the statement “There is no longer any doubt that air pollution can influence global climate” and goes on to explain the evidence supporting this point of view.
Similarly, the section within biology which discusses human beings doesn’t fool around with creationism or intelligent design or any of the other religious or pseudo-religious belief systems which have infiltrated some science classrooms: instead it presents the evidence for modern man’s evolutions over four billion years or so.
When covering so many topics there’s bound to be some choices made which will strike a given reader as odd. I wonder about the wisdom of including a statement like “Cosmetics promise beauty; however, in reality their effect is at best temporary, and the dangers should not be ignored” in the chemistry section, for instance. I’m no fan of the cosmetics industry, but that sounds suspiciously like someone’s favorite cause and doesn’t add to our knowledge of chemistry. Of course the effects of cosmetics are temporary and the phrase “the dangers should not be ignored” could be applied to most human endeavors, so why bring it up here?
Comparably, a caption in the communication technology section tells us that “Surveillance cameras are a common sight in daily life” which only prompts me to reply “that depends on where you live.” But most of the book avoids these kinds of statements and sticks to presenting knowledge clearly and attractively.
The Knowledge Book is a lot of fun for browsing although you should be warned that it’s addictive and so once you pick it up hours may pass without your realization. It would make a great gift for kids (beginning in grade school if they’re bright) because it makes the world of knowledge so attractive that they’re bound to find something which speaks to them. It doesn’t talk down to adults, either: I learned quite a few things while reading it.
You won’t find the last word on any subject in this volume, but in a way that’s an advantage because it means you have to seek out further sources—and in this age of busy public libraries and the Internet that shouldn’t be a problem for most people, no matter where they live or what their resources.