The DK Army

By: Rémy Ngamije
Posted: 6 August 2012
Category: Features Comments View Comments


After years of traversing university life with the aid of Wikipedia and Google a chance encounter with a Dorling Kindersley book conjures thoughts of the good old days when learning meant going to the Windhoek Public Library and fighting to the death for the right to borrow a DK book.

The DK ArmyI cannot accurately recall the last time I opened a Dorling Kindersley book. I must have been in my late teens or thereabouts. The book was about medieval England. Of course, there are many other things I could have been doing as a teen besides reading about Franks and Saxons. I hear most people of that age would have been out at the skateboard park or at the pool or doing any number of things initiated by liquor stolen from a father's bar, over-stimulated hormones, and a dash of irresponsibility. Being young, wild, and free were big things in Windhoek in Namibia back then. They still are.

These things never really appealed to me though. Sure, I had my fair share of fun and I gave my parents a respectable number of grey hairs and phone calls from angry teachers but, as I grew older, I slowly began putting all the childish things away and opted for the more sophisticated company of books. Academically, and in general life terms, this was a good move for me. Socially, though, I was crippling myself.

If, in Windhoek's rather tiny and backwards teen social circle, you were classified as a bookworm it meant you hung out at the small Windhoek Public Library. It was old and poorly maintained. Most of the books were pretty old and, if they were not stolen or missing, they were always in the book infirmary, recovering from some rough handling. It was not where all the cool kids hung out. You could not drink on the property, smoking was forbidden, and, most of all, there were no strange nookies and crannies where you could... erm... score nookie. All you could do at the library was read and learn.

This place was a haven for people of my ilk.

The library had a healthy supply of fiction for young readers; the Dahls and the Beatrix Potters were always available and if you could not find a copy of a CS Lewis book today you would be sure to find one tomorrow. The Enid Blyton books, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, and were so thumbed through you could lift fingerprints belonging to 70 per cent of the literate Windhoek population. When the Harry Potter series finally made it to the shelves, the books were filched inside a week.

For the older reader, the classics were there: Dickens, Chaucer, and all of the other thick and heavy books so dense in theme and depression onions cry when they are put next to them. The one thing the library lacked was a cohesive body of reference books for anyone without an undergraduate degree. Sure, it had a good collection of Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes, a handful of Grolier volumes and the perennial starting point of every high school project ever: the World Book Encyclopedia. The encyclopaedias were sometimes tough for young readers to navigate - they were scary. And boring. Very boring.

That's where DK came in.

The DK Army

Dorling Kindersley books were simple and easy to read, giving all readers a good foundation for further research if you needed a starting point. The most complex topics were broken down into words that anyone could understand. You did not need a genius-level IQ to understand how viruses operated or how plate tectonics helped to shape the world. You could flip a DK book open and be greeted with knowledge you could assimilate faster than a Gotye tune.

DK books, unlike most non-fiction books of the time, were loaded with rich and interesting images, which more than made up for the lack of prestige that could be found in one of the older Grolier books. DK books were light, too, so you didn't need to be a former World's Strongest Man to pick one up. That is something small kids appreciate when they are about to take a book off the shelf. I once had to pull a Britannica off a boy; I fear to think what would have happened to him if I had not strolled through that particular aisle when I did.

Coupled with the clever editorial design, the DK books were the vegetables of a healthy reading diet for any reader between the ages of eight and 17. They were a clever and easy spoonful of sugar that helped the bitter taste of non-fiction go down. From margin to margin, it was hard to turn a page without finding something informative to look at. Even though a small scream escaped my throat when I read the one about spiders, I still had the curiosity to read about the bird-eating spider. Each page was designed in such a way that a topic was introduced, explained, and concluded in as short a time as possible, to prevent the reader from being overwhelmed, but also from getting bored.

The DK ArmyDK books were the first time I encountered infographics, a mode of conveying complex statistical data using creative graphic design. Although infographics have become something of a watchword in every media publication, those of us who used to haunt public libraries and exchange DK books when the lights had gone out know of their true genesis.

Although they were supposedly made for young readers, it was surprising how often DK books were borrowed by older readers. From the time I got my first library card, at age eight, until the library closed for repairs (and never reopened), at age 21, not a month would go by without me borrowing a DK book. Being a regular at the library, I sauntered into the place and ordered the usual literature fix: some fiction, some comics (mostly Asterix or Tintin), and, if they were available, all the DK books that my senior library card would allow.

Freshly returned books would be stacked behind the old librarian like the expensive bottles of whisky and rum in a bar. The DK books, always in demand, would be at the top of the pile, waiting to be checked into the system and returned to the shelves. Most people would have to wait until the books were returned to the shelves before they could fight for them. No such treatment for Rémy. The librarian used to toss me a wink whenever I came through the door and if there was a DK book I wanted he would slide one over. If there was one I was waiting for, he would keep it for me under the counter, where I am quite convinced he kept a sturdy 12 gauge just in case things in the library got out of hand. I was Shane. I was cool. I got DK books whenever I wanted.

Yes, I was a DK kid. I am pretty sure all the best people were at some point in time. I think there was black market borrowing going on after the library officially closed its doors. That's how popular the books were.

The DK Army

I am pretty sure I had a bigger crush on DK books than I did on girls in my whole high school career. I devoured the books—cover to cover, back to front, and all the other ways you could have a book without being publicly indecent. From them I learnt how telephones work, how the pyramids of Egypt were built, and what happened to tree frogs in the Amazon whenever a tree was cut down. True, at the time I did not really see how all of this information would come in handy. Like I said, I was in my late teens. Being the knower of all things is not the kind of thing that gets you invites to all the cool parties. Nonetheless, I assiduously collected all of the various bits of information and filed them away, hoping they would be useful later.

I am 24 now, a veteran of over sixty 30 Seconds battles and my Trivial Pursuit campaigns eclipse Alexander The Great's and Napoleon's combined. My team and I, all DK kids from a bygone era, cut through the ranks of 90s babies like a squeaky fart in a Roman Catholic mass. We are ruthless. We are undefeated. This is not Sparta. This is general knowledge - and our well is pretty deep.

I will admit that the Internet and easy access to information have played their parts in our victories. Wikipedia, Google, the Kindle, and all the other modern electronic means of knowing more have given us a cutting edge in the various campaigns we have fought. They allow us to stay current, to verify something in the blink of an eye, but it is the hours spent in the library, our skills in page turning and our voraciousness in all things DK related that have formed the multi-disciplinary and able foot soldiers of our seemingly all knowing army.

The dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopaedias, and a healthy supply of DK books, ranging from photography to extremophiles, are the reason our general-knowledge army has come as far as it has. Although information is freer and much easier to access, it is the old modes of learning and discovery that have left the longest and lasting impression. In particular, it is the DK books that helped to introduce young readers, such as myself, to non-fiction in an accommodating manner. Had it not been for such books, I might have been perpetually lost in the world of fiction, scared of facts and the realities of the world. DK books, and other books of that species, are vital steps in knowledge cultivation, small baby stumbles into the wider world of research and science. Had it not been for Dorling Kindersley, I am not sure I would have taken quite as easily to photography as I have or become as travel hungry.

Perhaps there are other means for children to learn in today's world. There are iPads and Kindles and the World Wide Web and an app for everything. I have tried all of those and they are good in their own way but you will be hard pressed to explain why, at 24, I cried small tears of joy when I found Dorling Kindersley's The Natural History Book: The Ultimate Visual Guide To Everything On Earth.

It is 648 pages of illustrated general-know-it-all-if-you-can goodness. It contains things I learnt in biology class ages ago, binomial nomenclature jumped out at me on the 28th page. Lodged in the back of my mind was the voice of a 16-year-old reciting the hierarchies of classification: kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, and, finally, species. They were all there, clearly illustrated and explained and cooler than I have ever seen them before. Even in this day and age, where information is just a mouse click away, it is still possible to be excited by the simple act of turning over a page of a Dorling Kindersley book and finding something new.

The book is as I remember all DK books to have been. It is filled with diagrams, cross sections and vivid photographs. All are explained. Each section begins with an introduction anyone can understand and each page plunges you deeper into the world of natural history. Despite the absence of hyperlinks and comments sections the book remains interactive, as most Dorling Kindersley books do. It makes you look at each picture and you read everything on a page. On good days I do not even bother with half of the text on a web page but I read everything in a DK book. I am afraid of missing something important.

There is a feeling one gets - perhaps it is just me - when you flip through a Dorling Kindersley book, of being seven and innocent, of not knowing how the world works or why it does. It feels like you are lying on the rug of a classroom, the other little menaces crowded around you as the teacher slowly explains some deep mystery of the universe. She points at this and that and introduces you to a whole new world you did not know existed. It reminds me of being 14, of hours spent in the library and a stack of books I would eagerly plough through at home. It is a feeling I do not get when I flick through my iPad or when I read a book on my Kindle.

The DK ArmyIt is that feeling, of new discoveries and DK books being reserved for days on end, that resurfaced when I stumbled across The Natural History Book: The Ultimate Visual Guide To Everything On Earth. It was on a bookshelf in a part of the house I rarely visit. I pulled it out and sat on the floor, cross legged, and started flipping through. The feeling of reading from something that did not require me to adjust its brightness or to minimise other windows was nostalgic. It brought back fond memories of learning.

It made me happy to know that, despite the years, somewhere, some gawky teenager could be reading this same book. Whoever he or she is, it is hoped that we shall meet at some point in time so that we can both gush about how completely life changing DK books are. Better yet, I hope we get the chance to test our mettle against each other in a deadly game of Trivial Pursuit where the bodies of losers are left for the crows of general ignorance to feed upon.

Tags: #books

Key Facts: The Natural History Book
ISBN/EAN: 9781405336994
Edition: First
Publication Date: 1 October 2010
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 648
Dimensions: 257x306x42cm (WxHxD)
Genre/Keywords: animals, natural history, nature, science

On The Internet
The Natural History Book: Official Site

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