Incredible Cross Sections

Word Wednesday: 25 Years of ‘Incredible Cross-Sections’

Books Columns Reviews Word Wednesday


This Week’s Word Is “Cross-Sections.”

I’m bending the Word Wednesday rules slightly this week. Do hyphenated words like cross-sections count as one word or two? Whatever the case, it wouldn’t be allowed in Scrabble. This week’s review is for a reissue of the book that put publisher DK on my radar.

I was 21 at the time, but I loved Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections. I had a much younger (now) brother-in-law, so I could justify owning a copy. Twenty-five years on, the book has a new edition and it’s just as glorious as it ever was.

What is Incredible Cross-Sections? 

It’s a 48-page hardback filled with detailed and fully annotated diagrams of interesting buildings and vehicles. This new edition hasn’t had much of an overhaul, as far as I can tell. It’s a slightly smaller format, that’s all. There are no new diagrams, which is a shame. It would have been great to see a modern edifice such as the Burj Khalifa, perhaps a modern high-speed train, or, instead of a Jumbo Jet, an Airbus A380 represented.

DK has led the way in diversifying the scope of these types of book and the western focus of this one makes it easy to tell it was created 25 years ago. (Not least, because the plane represented is a Pan-Am Jumbo Jet. Though, curiously, Pan-Am had already folded by the time the original book was published.) (Another curious thing I’ve noticed whilst writing this review, that whilst billed as the “25th-anniversary” edition, it is in fact 27 years between this reissue and the original publication date)

Cross-SectionsNevertheless, many of the things pictured in the book are timeless. Castles, observatories, and galleons have not changed at all in 25 years and neither have steam trains or cathedrals. The Space Shuttle, I guess, is more of a historical curiosity now than it was when the book was first published, but as a result, its drawing is still accurate.

Whilst the tenants may have changed in the Empire State Building, and I’m sure the visitor prices have gone up in 25 years, it’s function and structure are just as they were in the early 90s. The same can’t be said of the coal mine and car factory.

Each object in the book is given a double-page spread, with the diagrams taking up much that space. Different areas of the building or vehicle are cut away, so we can see what is going on inside in a particular section. Around each picture are labels and small blocks of text, that describe a particular attribute of the diagram. Exceptions to the double-page rule are the ocean liner and steam train pages, which both open out to form larger four-leaf diagrams.

Incredible Cross-Sections describes both form and function. On the castle page, for example, we are shown the guard posts, food storage, and blacksmiths, as well as the portcullis, arrow slits, and drawbridge.

Across the book, there are 8 buildings; castle, observatory, coal mine, oil rig, opera house, car factory, subway station, and Empire State Building, and 9 vehicles: Galleon, ocean liner, submarine, tank, Jumbo Jet, helicopter, steam train, fishing trawler, and Space Shuttle.


Why Read Incredible Cross-Sections?

This sort of book is pure manna to certain types of children (and adults); those who love to learn visually or obsess over details. It’s a proper geek book. There’s always so much more to find. It taps into the same part of the brain that enjoys Where’s Waldo books. Some of the diagrams may be a little dated but the book looks as good as it ever did. The quality of the diagrams is second to none and the captions are clear, concise, and informative. The fold-out pages are an extra treat, as the book deep dives into the ocean liner and steam train.

In its day, this book was something of a trailblazer and you can see how it informs DK’s book design ethos, even now. It sets the bar for engaging children’s information books and is perfect for any school or home library. If you have a child how loves to know how things work, it completely fulfills this need. The decision to put buildings and vehicles together in the same book is perhaps a curious one, but as its been perennially popular for 25 years it’s clearly a combination that works.

In the main, Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections has stood the test of time well. One wonders whether it will still be being reprinted in another 25 years. I’ll be 71 by then, and perhaps telling my grandchildren about watching the first Space Shuttle launch on TV. I can pull out this book and show them all the historical curiosities contained within. I imagine the car factory will seem as archaic as the castle did back in 1993.

You can pick up a copy of Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections, here in the US and here, in the UK.

If you enjoyed this review, do check out my other Word Wednesday posts.

Incredible Cross Sections

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review.

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