Non-Fiction Book Review: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

ImageIf you haven’t heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality yet, then you can send me a nice thank you note for this post. Maybe some wheat-free brownies, if you’ve never heard of Dawkins’ or The Magic of Reality. Because you owe me, now.

The Magic of Reality is a book that I wish had been written in 1995, so that it could have fed my science-hungry little brain when it still accepted real-life instead of retreating into itself in an ostrichy homage to make-believe. It might have changed my life, literally. Although, if it had been I might, right now, be a exobiologist (it’s a thing!) instead of a struggling sci-fi writer with an unhealthy penchant for books. I’ll let you decide how great a loss that would be.

Hint: It would be earth-shattering.

Now, if you’re not already a massive Dawkins fan–well, I won’t tell you how to live your life. But we can’t be friends anymore. However, even if you don’t support his call for militant atheism you may still be able to appreciate The Magic of Reality. Because it’s not about atheism per-say. It’s about reality. Specifically, it is about how we know what’s really true–the book’s subtitle–and what is myth, legend, or just plain lies.

And what’s best about this book is that it’s for kids! The Magic of Reality is Dawkins’ attempt to make science and reality interesting for kids. Even kids who aren’t otherwise that into science, kids who like the ideas but not necessarily the equations, hypotheses, and lab-experiments that don’t involve things that go boom. Kids like me!

And, if you’re like me, you probably had a moment–possibly after you just fell asleep on your desk and drooled on your assignment sheet–where the question dawned upon you: When did Science get so boring? Like me, you probably have fond memories of your elementary school years where you learned about volcanoes and dinosaurs and outer-space. You know, back when science was fun!

Unfortunately, there comes a time in most school curricula when the fun seems to get siphoned out and replaced with pedantic memorization of terminology, formulas, and diagrams. For most of us, Science class becomes just another thing you have to force yourself through in order to pass onto the next grade.

Sure, there are a few who are intrigued by the more practical applications of these courses. Fortunately there are enough that we still have people who go on to become chemists, physicists, and biologists. But for most of us, school ruins science. Forever.

The Magic of Reality makes Science fun and interesting again. No, really. It does. Dawkins’ begins each chapter with a question about the world, or the universe, and how it works. He then discusses ways in which human beings have tried to explain these things–like rainbows, earthquakes, and miracles–without the aid of science. He tells colourful myths from all across the globe which, along with the rest of the text, are illustrated by the brilliant artist Dave McKean (you may recognize his work with Neil Gaiman on Coraline).

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After poking a little fun at ourselves for all of the silly things we have believed about the world in the past, Dawkins goes on to tell us the truth about the world. And he tells us how we know that it’s the truth through science. Although The Magic of Reality is a kids’ book it never comes off as dumbed down or patronizing. Dawkins gives his readers an admirable amount of credit which, for the 13 year old reader, will likely add a lot of credence to what he has to say. He’s also not shy about pointing out where his knowledge is limited and never tries to explain things vaguely when he doesn’t have the necessary know-how.

As an adult who, as I’m sure is true of many of you, hasn’t though much about the nitty gritty of Science–elements, atoms, sound waves, natural selection, etc.–The Magic of Reality is a wonderful refresher course. Even topics that I’m a littler more well versed in were worth a read, simply for the unique perspective that Dawkins takes. And to be honest, there’s a lot of “basic” stuff in here that I haven’t fully grasped until reading this book. Impressive, sir, impressive.

McKean’s illustrations are beautiful, often full-page, works of art. The entire text is wonderfully supported and enhanced by these images, and the effect is quite stunning. In case that isn’t enough, Dawkins includes website addresses for video demonstrations, and virtual experimentation tools to supplement the work itself. If The Magic of Reality doesn’t reach out to an internet savvy multi-tasking pre-teen brain, I’m not sure there is a print media capable of the task.

Oh. In case you’re not interested in print media version–check out the iPad app.

Really, the only beef I have with this book is Dawkins’ handling of the myths. I love that he included them, and I love that he included Judeo-Christian myths as well. I think this is important to give a little perspective on why we believe the things we believe (but I won’t go into that too much, here. I’ll either be preaching to the choir or causing a ruckus)

I think The Magic of Realitya great way to teach kids how to evaluate the information that they receive on a daily basis from all kinds of sources–church, school, parents, television, books–about what makes a fact a fact, and how to decide what is true.

What I don’t love about the inclusion of the myths is that they seem to be used merely as a tool to demonstrate our past ignorance and celebrate our intellectual development in the last couple of centuries. Since this is a book about truth and knowledge, it would have been nice if Dawkins gave a little props to his fellows in the Social Sciences and Arts who study myths and what they can teach us about the cultures from which they originate. Dawkins treats myths as silly stories, kind of fun to talk about, but ultimately discrediting them as “not true”. This is an unfortunate and potentially damaging position for Dawkins to take, and to encourage children to take, when so many cultures are losing their traditions and beliefs to modernization.

Folklore and Mythology, although not strictly “true”, still have much to teach us. We can derive cultural information from oral-histories and traditions that are not implicit in the mere study of artifacts and burial sites. Mythology helps to supplement what little information we have about many ancient religious practices, ritual objects, and cosmologies. Not to mention what it can tell us about social structures, gender roles, cultural taboos, etc. Myths should be treated as living history, and I feel Dawkins should have given them their due.

That being said, The Magic of Reality is definitely a book that I would recommend to any and everyone. Even those people who think science is boring. Because there is nothing boring about life, and that’s essentially what The Magic of Reality is all about. Dawkins does a fantastic job of showing just how spectacular the world around us is, even without magic and miracles.

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5 thoughts on “Non-Fiction Book Review: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

  1. I, too, wonder if my life would have been different – or even better – had I not been fed a steady diet of fairytales when I was a child – you know, Santa, Easter Bunny, Jesus, the Rapture – those sorts of things. I wonder which of us might have discovered a cure for cancer, had we not believed God would heal, who among us might have staved off the financial crisis, had we not trusted God with our finances – think of all the human intellectual capital lost by these poisonous lies!

    1. It’s an interesting thing to consider, isn’t it? Many people are quick to criticize religions for the wars they cause and the intolerance they often encourage, but we never really think of the peripheral consequences of faith. What would the world look like if all of that energy was put into exploring The Magic of Reality?

      I am lucky to have come from a home environment that encouraged me to explore and decide my own beliefs (although I did go through the Santa and Easter Bunny stage, who doesn’t want to believe in that?). However I feel that the public school system did as much to stifle my interest in science as religion has done for others.

      By drowning a child’s sense of wonder in dry facts and repetition we force them to seek out other avenues for creativity and inspiration. Why should we encourage the belief that wonder and reality are mutually exclusive? Not that it is a bad thing for children to be interested in fairy tales and imagination. To this day, I love fantasy, folklore, science fiction, and just un-reality in general. But why make fiction the only outlet for wonder when the “real world” is often more incredible than anything one could just make up?

        1. Ahh, therein lies the problem, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it sometimes seems like the political process is purely that!

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