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How Things Work

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A few months ago, our toilet started running periodically, even when we hadn’t flushed it. After some research, I found out it was called a “phantom flush.” I also found out I had absolutely no idea how a toilet worked. In a world of automation and ease, what we don’t know can easily evade us. Devices we use every day feel so familiar that we think we know how they work. But when asked to break down the mechanics, we draw a blank.

And I’m not just behind with the mechanical or technical. There are trees in my yard I don’t know by name, birdcalls I can’t identify, weather phenomena I don’t understand. Even my own body is frequently a mystery.  

My goal this holiday season is to dive into a few books and learn a little more about the basics of my world. Here’s where I’ll be starting: 

1. The Where, the Why, & the How

By Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman & Matt Lamothe

In this beautiful collection, artists and scientists team up to answer some of life’s great mysteries. Mysteries like why do cats purr? or what is the God particle? Some of the particle physics questions/answers are a bit dicey, but overall this is a very pleasing book.

The internet is great for finding information you’re looking for, but it’s not so great when you don’t know what you’re looking for. This book is filled with questions I never thought to ask. A quick flip through these pages fills me with a thirst to know more. It’s both inspiring and accessible. 

2. How Things Work Now

By David Macaualy

First published in 1988, How Things Work is a classic written for adults and kids alike. The latest version was published in 2016, and has been updated to include a section on the digital world. From levers and pulleys to circuit boards and scanners, this book is filled with detailed explanations of the mechanics of everyday life. While the illustrations in The Where, The Why, and The How are beautiful, they’re more artful than explanatory. In contrast, the diagrams in How Things Work Now, are clear and instructive. This is the kind of book you’ll want on your shelves – both for reference and plain old curiosity.

3. Pond Life

By George K. Reid

I’m currently reading Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood and in it she describes a book that transfixed her as a child: A Field Book of Ponds and Streams. It was published in 1923 and I haven’t been able to find ca copy. So, I’ve settled on a volume from the Golden Nature Guide, Pond Life. I’ve thumbed through other volumes in this series at my cottage – Snakes, Insects, Birds, all dog-eared and from the 1950s. The illustrations are my favourite part of the series and have stayed the same over the years – they’re detailed and quaint, vibrant yet soft.   

4. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern & Central North America

By Roger Tory Peterson

All summer long I work with my windows open in my office and listen to the birds. I’m working on memorizing birdcalls so that I know exactly who’s chatting when. So far, I know a total 5 calls by ear: the Cardinal, the Blue Jay, the Robin, the Red-winged bBackbird and the Chickadee. Catching sight of the birds when you’re listening is helpful in cementing their calls, so I’ve had my eye on this guidebook for a while now.