Today National Non-Fiction Day is being celebrated across the UK, highlighting all that is brilliant about non fiction and showing that it’s not just fiction that can be read and enjoyed for pleasure.
In this ambitious book, richly and imaginatively illustrated throughout by Dave McKean, Dawkins sets himself the task of answering some of the really big question of life, exactly the sort of questions you hear from the mouths of children including “Are we alone?” and “Why do bad things happen?”
Over the course of 12 chapters Dawkins tackles these questions head on, also exploring key aspects of space, time and evolution along the way. He begins almost every chapter with examples of myths (from all over the world, from all different sorts of traditions) about the topic in question before moving on to explore the scientific explanation for the phenomenon under discussion.
This video gives a great summary of the book from Dawkins himself:
The Magic of Reality is no dry academic tract. Rather Dawkins takes on the role (almost) of intimate storyteller. He adopts an informal, colloquial manner focusing throughout the book on showing us what he calls the “poetic magic” of science, that which is “deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more alive.”
Dawkins’ friendly tone and his inclusion of stories about rainbows, earthquakes and the seasons make The Magic of Reality an eminently readable book, especially for readers with no or little background knowledge. There’s a lot of the pace, suspense and beauty you might associate with a great novel in Dawkins’ book. Indeed, Dawkins really seems to me to be trying to tell a story (albeit a true one) rather than simply sharing and contextualising a lot of scientific facts.
Perhaps a conscious decision to make the book read like a story is behind the decision not to include any footnotes, suggested further reading or bibliography. This I found frustrating; Dawkins’ succeeded in getting me curious, getting me asking questions about the issues he discusses, and although I would have liked to know more, he doesn’t provide any suggestion for where to go next. That said, the lack of references does help the book flow and feel quite unlike a hard hitting science book (though that is exactly what it is).
Dawkins’ storytelling approach also means that The Magic of Reality is not so much as reference book to dip in and out of, but rather a book that benefits from reading cover to cover. This left me feeling that whilst it is being marketed as a family science book, it doesn’t particularly work as a reference book for help with homework, or a book you might pull out and randomly look at together with your children on a rainy day.
Rather I think it is excellent for parents (including those who homeschool) who want an engaging read that will help prepared them to answer the questions their children have. Teenagers are also likely to enjoy this book – I hope Secondary School teachers of science will use it in class, not least because Dawkins and McKean have come up with some brilliant metaphors, both textual and visual for explaining some complex scientific issues, such as genetic variation over time, or the truly mindboggling distances between stars. And by juxtaposing the science with fictional stories this book becomes a great discussion in the round for all curious minds everywhere.
The Magic of Reality is definitely a non fiction book that shows it’s not just fiction that can be read and enjoyed for pleasure. It made me curious, got me intrigued, did indeed give me goosebumps, and left me rather a lot wiser. What more could you ask for from a book? Really, a must-read for 10, 20, 30, 50, 80 year olds who like not only to be entranced, but also to understand.
Disclosure: I received my copy of The Magic of Reality free from the publisher. This review, however, reflect my own and honest opinion.