From the cartoons of R J Matson
How many times have you got bored reading those textbooks on physics or chemistry? And can anyone really understand statistics besides statisticians? What about history? How many people do you know that read a book on history for fun?
The Cartoon Guide and Cartoon History series are a unique and amazingly creative set of books that attempts to make a number of subjects accessible to everyone. Larry Gonick, the author and cartoonist, spent a number of years in academia (including a year in TIFR, Mumbai!) before he decided that he had a lot more fun drawing cartoons!
The Cartoon History series was the first I encountered. I saw a couple of scans of some pages and it immediately gripped my attention. Being in the US at the time, it was easy to find a couple of copies on eBay and quickly ordered issues of the first two volumes. I finished reading them in a couple of days and wanted more! I found the third volume and Cartoon History of the United States at my local library and read those too. They were brilliant, to say the least.
I next started on the Cartoon Guides. I manged to get my hands on (and read) the Cartoon Guides to Genetics, Statistics, Chemistry, Environment and even Sex! Most of these latter guides were written in collaboration with an expert in the field but nevertheless retauned the fun style that Gonick had already established in Cartoon History. I think what makes these cartoon books work, besides the format of cartooning, is the narrative style of teaching or explaining. A lot of people are more comfortable learning when someone is actively explaining something to them as opposed to read it drily from a book. Gonick’s cartoons maintain this feel by having characters that pepper the book along with the regular illustrations and give that narrative continuity.
When I was a TA at a US university, one of the exercises we did with our students was called a VARK test. VARK – Visual, Audio, Reading and Kinesthetic – referred to ways of learning. The cartoon guides could be said to cover visual (pictures!), reading (there’s text) and kinesthetic (the cartoons point, move, etc) ways of teaching. Maybe that’s why they’re so popular!
Another thing I love is that while each of these books has a bibliography, it isn’t like your standard boring bibliography at the end of other academic books but is also illustrated with cartoons like the rest of the book. Why can’t more textbooks be like this?