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by Larry Gonick illustrated by Larry Gonick

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-168909-3
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A tour of calculus from the polymath whose illustrated guides have illuminated a wide range of subjects, from genetics and sex to the environment and the universe.

This time out, unfortunately, Muse cartoonist Gonick’s (The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 2, 2009, etc.) presentation is labored, the cartoons are primarily decorative and the course is tough. To begin with, calculus requires four years of high-school math, which the author reprises in the first 50 pages. For many readers this will be a slog through algebra, trigonometry, exponentials, function theory, etc. While most texts map equations onto lines or curves on a standard x-y axis, Gonick introduces parallel lines with arrows connecting an x value on one line to its f(x) value on the parallel line. This approach is particularly unhelpful when you want to visualize, say, minute changes of position (on the y axis) over time (on the x axis). Nor does the author discuss fundamental concepts like continuity or maxima and minima until well into the chapters on the derivative and differential calculus. While he does highlight fundamental theorems and classic rules, Gonick devotes too much space to how-to manipulations like how to differentiate inverse functions. The narrative improves when the author introduces the concept of the integral as the sum of skinny rectangles under a curve, and Gonick provides many helpful, practical examples of how calculus is used.

This is no idiot’s guide to math, but it could be useful as a supplement to a standard course in calculus.