Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory of Evolution by John Van Wyhe

When graphic designers go wild
The Darwin Experience is a memorial tribute to the illustrious scientific genius Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. It was published in 2008 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth. Much attention and painstaking detail has been given to the graphic design of this book. Though not a lengthy work, this little coffee table book comes in its own slipcase. With only 57 pages of text, it is much more a book to be looked at than to be read.

Despite the emphasis on packaging, the text is actually pretty good. Scientific historian John Van Wyhe gives a commendable, concise summary of Darwin’s life and career that is accessible to readers with little prior knowledge of Darwin, yet filled with enough lesser-known facts to keep the interest of those already somewhat familiar with Darwin’s writings. In such a small space, Van Wyhe is required to be brutally brief in his summations of The Voyage of the Beagle, On the Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, but he shines a helpful light on some of the more obscure works and areas of research which may not be familiar even to some of Darwin’s most avid admirers.

Each “chapter” of the book is a two-page spread, consisting of an article on a particular period of Darwin’s life or a specific book that he wrote. This is accompanied by two sidebars, usually featuring extended quotes either from Darwin’s work or from someone praising him, along with six or seven illustrations. Unfortunately, all this content is crammed into a package which is terribly overdesigned, and most of the images are poorly reproduced. Although printed on smooth matte paper, each page features a faux background of yellowed, weathered paper. On top of this is often a screened background image of an old engraving. Sometimes on top of that will be a Victorian wallpaper pattern. Then on top of that is the text in tiny six-point type, rendered in a dizzying array of fonts chosen for their antiquated appearance rather than for legibility. Visually, the result is an overindulgent mess.

One of the major selling points of this package is the inclusion of a number of facsimile documents. These are reproductions of Darwin’s letters, pages from his journals, maps or illustrations from his books, and other sundry documents such as a Chilean passport or a ticket to his funeral. These are either strategically affixed to or stuffed into pockets in each page. While the idea is a good one, the problem with these facsimile documents is that without exception they are all poorly reproduced. The scans are blurry, like everything else they are printed on a faux weathered background, and for some reason in almost all cases black lines and letters have been replaced by a hazy light gray. Darwin’s handwriting is hard enough to read, but this design treatment renders it almost totally illegible.

The faults of this book lie not with its author but with its design and production. The attempt to create a sensational artifact has resulted in the making of a disappointing book. The Darwin Experience begs to be judged on the merits of its bells and whistles, and in that respect it fails. Readers with a true reverence for Darwin may nonetheless find some enjoyment in Van Wyhe’s admirable tribute. By all means, look for a used or remaindered copy, because it’s definitely not worth the full price.

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