The Cartoon Guide to Computer Science

By Larry Gonick £3.95
Harper and Row

There’s really no reason to remain in the dark about computers and computer science, even if the prospect of delving into amazingly complicated textbooks has so far proved too daunting.

Admittedly, there are a few beginner’s guides currently available which try to take the pain out of approaching the subject, but all too often they are either downright patronising in tone or assume a certain level of pre-knowledge of their reader.

Larry Gonick’s apparently humble paperback volume is truly a masterpiece of explanatory writing — and drawing. Anyone thinking about getting to grips with the theoretical side of computer hardware, software and systems would be well advised to get hold of a copy and write their name in large letters inside the front cover straightaway — it’s one of those books likely to walk!

An all-encompassing overview of computer science is an ambitious project to embark on between the covers of one book, but Larry Gonick has succeeded, presenting an excellent mix of entertainment and education in his Cartoon Guide.

Split into three sections, the book begins with an explanation of the concept of ‘information’, which is what computers are very good at processing. Mr Gonick then takes his reader gently through number theory, explaining why computers use the binary system and how it works, onto the early days of hardware, presenting a potted history of computers. From that perspective the internal workings of hardware and microprocessor architecture are attacked. While this second section of the book (‘Logical Spaghetti’!) requires a little more effort from the reader who may need to resort to a little pencil and paperwork, it must be the least painful, most user friendly introduction to combinational logic ever written.

The concluding section ‘Software’ introduces a few fundamental aspects of programming, using BASIC for examples of constructions, and then wraps up with a glimpse of the kind of things that computers can be used for, given the appropriate programs.

Larry Gonick describes himself as ‘an overeducated cartoonist’. He has certainly found the ideal way of sharing some of his excess education. The whole style of this book is appealing; the cartoons work as a foil to the text assisting the words to get the message across rather than acting as illustrations. The humour, contained in both the drawings and the text, serves to lighten the reader’s task of taking in new concepts yet avoids trivialising the subject. Boolean algebra is ‘light reading’ to very few people, for instance, but Larry Gonick’s treatment of Boole’s laws, using spotted or NOT spotted and glad or NOT glad pigs as the first worked example is a joy to read. ‘Essential Reading’ is a phrase which is prone to being used lightly by some book reviewers: but not this one! Just go out and buy a copy of The Cartoon Guide, I promise you won’t be able to avoid learning quite a lot about Computer Science if you do, and you’ll be entertained in the process. I just wish Mr Gonick had got his act together years ago, when I started learning about computers — the accurate overview he presents in this book would have been invaluable in making everything I learnt drop into place in some sort of order.

The first book to be reviewed in these soon-to-be-hallowed pages, The Cartoon Guide to Computer Science also wins the accolade of the first book to be awarded a CRASH Smash. Nuff said?