O’Reilly has been churning out technical literature of unbeatable quality for as long as there has been a real IT industry. In recent years, they have branched into hobbyist and educational material, particularly including the Make series of periodicals and books that has not only reignited numerous hobbyist markets but also spawned its own set of conferences, the Maker Faires. DIY is enjoying a renaissance, and Make is at the forefront. I love pretty much everything about Make, but one of the most recent books under the Make brand exceeds even the high bar they have already set for themselves. I am referring to Charles Platt‘s Make:Electronics, which I have finally managed to pry from my 12-year-old’s eyeballs long enough to review.
I was sort of obsessed with electronics when I was a kid (insert collective “duh” from anyone who knows me). I read anything I could get my hands on, which unfortunately ended up being the Radio Shack catalog and a set of musty library books that seemed as though they were written in a foreign language. I pored over schematics and took things apart, much to my parents’ dismay, in a vain effort to figure out just what made all those wires and components tick. I would have to say that, overall, I failed. I did manage to occasionally fix broken radios and such, but it was always by luck in finding a loose connection or a physically broken component. I simply didn’t understand what all the little pieces did individually, so it was impossible to fathom what they did in concert.
Eventually I turned 16 and migrated to cars, which had actual moving parts, but a little part of me always pined to know how the solid state stuff worked. I took enough basic electrical engineering classes in college to gain a basic, dry understanding what resistors and capacitors and transistors were, but the magic of them was gone and I ended up in computer science instead, learning software algorithms instead of electrical traces. (And then music and writing…. nothing can quench the fire in the belly like a dry, boring college class.) I still kept an eye out, but every electronics book I found frustrated me by its complexity, vagueness, and punishing attention to mathematics—I actually like math and I couldn’t get through these books. I know from talking to others that I am not the only propellerhead with this experience.
When I encountered Make:Electronics in January, I figured it was yet another in the long series of confusing, math-heavy electronics books that had so thoroughly quenched my fiery interest in the subject.
I could not have been more wrong.
Make:Electronics is the book every single propellerhead wishes that they had had when they were 12 years old. Or any age. I’m not kidding. This book is the most approachable primer to electronic components and circuits that I have ever read, and I have read a LOT of them. It is friendly, well paced, full of good illustrations, and full of well-grounded metaphors that bring each component to life. I can honestly say that I never quite understood how capacitors worked until I read that section in this book, and now I will never forget.
This information is all packaged in the wonderful Make philosophy that breaking things (ok, small, easily replaced things) is a good way to learn about them, and indeed the book contains vivid instructions for burning up one battery and licking another, for “broiling” an LED, and for performing several other “dangerous” or destructive tasks in a controlled way that enables you to actually see what is happening. These are all things that I had to discover for myself, but with no one watching over my shoulder to explain what was going on I ended up discovering them repeatedly and wastefully. The book’s subtitle is “Learning by Discovery”, although what I found most satisfying was that the discovery was accompanied by friendly instruction.
Perhaps the most important feature of this book is the obvious love and almost childlike fascination that Charles Platt brings to the text. Platt is a science fiction author as well as a contributing editor to Wired and an important interviewer of other authors. Platt’s writing skill is obvious, but more obvious to me at least is his desire to teach, and his joy in doing so. That joy leaks out of every page and it is utterly infectious.
In short, Make:Electronics is a wonderful book that should be required reading for anyone with even the slightest interest in the subject. In fact, it should be the first and possibly the only reading you do, at least until Charles Platt writes another one. I have never written a book review this positive, but I honestly can’t say enough good things about it.
Note: The Maker Shed also provides a related tool kit and (soon) components packs, although there is a distinct happiness in going down to your local electronics shop and sourcing the parts yourself. If you buy the tool kit, note that the book is included.