GeekDad Bookshelf Essentials: The Way Things Work

Geek Culture

GeekDads are natural sources of information. When confronted by a question from GeekOffspring, however, the true GeekDad never simply reveals the answer. He says, “why don’t we find out?” or (equally as often) “why don’t you look it up?” (And of course the truth is that the GeekDad wants to know the answer just as much as the kids do.)

My parents were very big on Looking It Up. We had all sorts of reference books – dictionaries, the Encyclopedia Americana (circa 1968), science books, chemistry books, medical textbooks (my father is a doctor as well as a GeekDad), Roget’s Thesaurus, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, those Time-Life books about history and the nations of the world, and on and on. From an early age, I was an ace looker-upper.

I have been trying to instill in my two boys the same sense of curiosity and passion to find out (and largely succeeding, I might add).  Sometimes, though, I think my kids, living in the era of Google and Wikipedia, really miss out on the thrill of the hunt — riffling through multiple volumes in search of that elusive, relevant nugget; the rewarding glow of a Looking It Up job well done. (I’m not saying that Google and Wikipedia are not to be encouraged or used, just that online is not and should not be the only solution to Looking It Up.) So I am creating my own Look It Up shelf at home and teaching the boys to cherish and use it.


A key player in what I’ll now call GeekDad Bookshelf Essentials, and one of the true touchstones of Looking It Up, is David Macaulay’s classic The Way Things Work, now available as The New Way Things Work.

The Way Things Work has been around for a good twenty years now. (Actually, there was a pre-Macaulay version, published in 1967 and translated from the original German edition. I received a copy of this for my ninth birthday and consulted it incessantly – particularly during my Apollo-era scheme to build my own moon rocket. Or a roller coaster. Whichever one I could assemble in the backyard without my parents noticing.)

The New Way Things Work contains countless accessible explanations of all sorts of common devices (especially the ones that kids tend to be curious about): can openers, tape recorders, boats, helicopters, airplanes, carburetors, clocks, telescopes, microscopes, cameras, telephones, televisions and hundreds more, all accompanied by Macaulay’s whimsical yet informational drawings.


The “new” bits in the New Way Things Work are just that:
bits. The digital stuff. The Internet, computers, scanners, memory, GPS, robots, e-mail – all the things that weren’t in earlier editions, but that my kids are interested in as much as I was in moon rockets. (One notable omission: no video games, no consoles – although there is an entry on Virtual Reality. I’m gonna have to find another source for Looking It Up for the game stuff, though, because the kids are asking.)

The Way Things Work is a wonderful companion and deserves a place in every GeekDad bookshelf. It’s useful not only for
Looking It Up but also for its close relatives – Putting It Together and Taking
It Apart (which, naturally, are also highly recommended GeekDad activities.) Enjoy it, give it a good home in your bookshelf – and start encouraging the kids to
Look It Up.

Do you have your own nomination for GeekDad Bookshelf Essentials? Please let me know… I’ll be writing up more Essentials on a regular basis.


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