Friday, 21 October 2011

Book Review | The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean

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What are things made of? What is the sun? Why is there night and day, winter and summer? Why do bad things happen? Are we alone? Throughout history people all over the world have invented stories to answer profound questions such as these. Have you heard the tale of how the sun hatched out of an emu's egg? Or what about the great catfish that carries the world on its back? Has anyone ever told you that earthquakes are caused by a sneezing giant?

These fantastical myths are fun - but what is the real answer to such questions? The Magic of Reality, with its explanations of space, time, evolution and more, will inspire and amaze readers of all ages - young adults, adults, children, octogenarians. Teaming up with the renowned illustrator Dave McKean, Richard Dawkins answers all these questions and many more.

In stunning words and pictures this book presents the real story of the world around us, taking us on an enthralling journey through scientific reality, and showing that it has an awe-inspiring beauty and thrilling magic which far exceed those of the ancient myths. We encounter rainbows, our genetic ancestors, tsunamis, shooting stars, plants, animals, and an intriguing cast of characters in this extraordinary scientific voyage of discovery. Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean have created a dazzling celebration of our planet that will entertain and inform for years to come. 


I never read The God Delusion. I might well be the only one. But though I agree with the thesis biologist Richard Dawkins sets out therein - that a widely-held belief in some supernatural creator deity does not constitute proof of such an unlikely thing - I didn't feel the need to read a textbook to reinforce my position as regards religion.

Nor, for similar reasons, did I attend The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkin's sequel of sorts to The God Delusion, in which the professor addressed the question of evolution; again I gather in terms I largely agree with. In truth, I only rarely come to non-fiction, and only then when there's some overriding reason for me to, above and beyond an interesting subject, or a shared opinion; some passion, say, that the work taps into. In the case of The Magic of Reality, Dave McKean was that reason.

There are few better reasons.

You may be familiar with Dave McKean because of his run of covers on Neil Gaiman's seminal Sandman, or else the estimable British illustrator's various other collaborations with Mr. Amanda Palmer: namely The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls and Crazy Hair. If not these, then perhaps his vast graphic novel Cages, which gained some notice - if not half so much as it deserved - or the film MirrorMask, maybe?

The man is in any event an artistic marvel, and it has been my pleasure to pursue him from comics to books to movies, and back again. Thus The Magic of Reality: a beautiful coffee-table volume of popular science from the pen of the emeritus professor, profusely illustrated and exquisitely designed by Mr. McKean.

Each of The Magic of Reality's twelve chapters begins with a question, from "Who was the first person?" to "Why do bad things happen?" by way of "What is a rainbow?" and "Are we alone?"

My purpose is to answer the question, or at least give the best possible answer, which is the answer of science. But I shall usually begin with some mythical answers because they are colourful and interesting, and real people have believed them. Some people still do. (p.32) 

Invariably Dawkins indulges these feeble but well-meaning answers, allowing that the attempt to explain, even incorrectly, is no ill thing. Then, before the science begins in earnest, the author tends to establish, in terms of certain evidence, how inadequate - dare I say dangerous - these explanations are, in this enlightened day and age.

Dawkins however keeps his skeptical professor in check. What science there is in The Magic of Reality is well pitched, very accessible - even to younger readers, whom I gather this volume is aimed at - and not typically dismissive... though there are a few cheeky implications, such as talk about "the Jewish preacher called Jesus" (p.261) and the lumping-in of Christianity and other major modern belief systems with some shall we say far-fetched legends. As discussed, I don't disagree, but it's all in good fun anyway, and it goes no further than this.

Speaking of fun, The Magic of Reality is absolutely that: between Dawkins' conversational, easy-does-it explanations and the dazzling diversity of the art present on each and every page of this gorgeous (not to mention giftable) short volume, The Magic of Reality is a bona fide delight to peruse, worthy of pride of place on any coffee table. Simply flicking through it, as I assure you all and sundry comers to your sitting room will, more than justifies the price of admission to this exhilarating trip through time and space and faith.

Without Dave McKean's invaluable contributions, I don't know that I'd have looked twice at The Magic of Reality, in truth... but I'm glad I did. Though many of the subjects discussed herein were subjects I needed no new introduction to, many readers will, and they stand to benefit massively from The Magic of Reality, both intellectually and artistically. The value of such a pursuit can hardly be understated.


The Magic of Reality
by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean

UK Publication: September 2011, Bantam Press
US Publication: October 2011, Free Press

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  1. Niall, care to take a guess at how young a reader could be to enjoy this? Or is there a guide given? This could be a good gift for impressionable young minds...

  2. I'd also be interested to see how young a kid could be to enjoy this book.

    Thanks so much for reviewing it on here. I've kinda been waiting for someone to talk about this. It really has me interested for when my little one is a bit older.... I highly doubt a 2 month old will care.

  3. Can't see an actual guide on the book, no, but here's a shot in the dark: I'd say 10+ is a safe bet for the text of The Magic of Reality, while the art will of course appeal to all ages. I've already ordered a copy as a gift for a pre-teen friend of the family, for instance, and I don't doubt she'll adore it; meanwhile I'm thinking about buying another for my mum. Which isn't to give the impression that gents, even tiny little fellas, won't appreciate it. I did.

    Really, it's kind of the perfect present for all the family. Maybe a bit beyond your two month-old just now, Sarah, but in a couple of years! :)

  4. Thanks very much Niall, appreciate it (and the review of course). Since my son is 9 and a bit this could be great! Maybe I should buy a copy for his school library as well... His semi-religious mum might not like it as much as me though :-)