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Books: Reinventing the Wheel and Supercade

In the last week I have read two Coffee Table books, each by a collector, each about the history of an interactive device. The first was Reinventing the Wheel, a book I picked up after Jason Kottke declared it "highly recommended". But while I don't doubt that Kottke actually enjoyed the book, my guess is that most people purchasing Reinventing will not read it themselves, but instead give it as a gift or throw it onto an endtable to impress houseguests.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I, personally, only read half of it before my interest petered out. Reinventing The Wheel is a compendium of photos and descriptions of "Wheel Charts" -- those cardboard calculation tools used to determine what color goes best with your bedspread, what stars you should see in your nighttime sky, and which ingredients you'll require to whip up some Devilled Crab. The book opens with an fascinating introduction covering the invention and evolution of these wheels (called "volvelles" in earlier times). It's an excellent essay, one that whet my appetite for the 93 pages of plates to follow.

But after looking at only a dozen of the plates -- each showing a photograph of a specific wheel and offering a complete description of its creation and function -- I felt like a guy at a party, cornered by someone going on and on about their hobby. (If you've ever had the misfortune of hearing me get going on the Evils Of The State Lottery or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you are painfully aware of the feeling I am trying to describe.) The Wheel Charts are ingenious and involved, but, taken as a whole, it was a bit like reading every bus schedule at the station. Eventually I put this Coffee Table book on my coffee table, and later thumbed through it a few more times while waiting for various levels of my video game to load.

I felt no such apathy towards Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age. This was a book I simply couldn't put down (except when I had to, because the sheer weight of it was making my arms tired). Unlike Reinventing, the introduction here was a bit extraneous. Author Van Burnham traces the genesis of the video game to the creation of the atomic bomb, which is as intriguing as it is arbitrary -- you get the feeling that she could have just as easily tied the origin of the video game to the transistor, the television, or the invention of fire. But the plates in this book -- wow! Nearly very major arcade game from the years 1971 - 1984 is shown, each accompanied by a description of game play, mention of the game's evolutionary ancestors and descendants, and an account of how it fared on the market. Although the focus is on upright "cabinet" games, Supercade also reviews the major home systems of the era: Atari, IntelliVision, ColecoVision and so forth.

It took me a few hours and a couple of beers, but I read every damned page in Supercade -- this despite the fact that I was already intimately familiar with nearly every game depicted, having played them all as a kid (and then watched them all played on Starcade). Some of the Supercade reviews on Amazon.com claim that the text in this book is all cribbed from other sources, but it was new to me and I wolfed it down.

So, what am I saying, here? That I recommend Supercade and give a thumbs down to Reinventing the Wheel. No. Technically, Reinventing is the better of the two -- the writing is more polished, the lay-out is superior (Supercade, like the games it covers, is terribly busy, almost on par with Wired magazine), and if you were to throw both onto your Coffee Table, more people would probably pick it up for a skim. But Supercade pushed all my buttons, and Reinventing left me cold. But it's worth noting that in neither case did I read the book the way it was intended to be read. Books like this are designed to be leafed through by guests to your homes as they wait on a couch or sit on the john. They are also designed, from a marketing stand-point, as "gift books" -- you don't have a present for Kevin's birthday, you run to Barnes and Noble, you think "Kevin likes Playstation, so I'll get him this book on video games" and you purchase it, despite the fact that you've not read it yourself nor heard it endorsed. Frankly, as "gift books" you probably can't go wrong with either of these. (If the Birthday Boy is, in fact, a boy, and in his 30's, Supercade is almost a sure thing. It's also an expensive thing, at $50 to Reinventing's $25.) It just a matter of asking yourself which the the recipient be more likely to have: a paper cut or Nintendo thumb. Choose your book accordingly.

Posted on August 19, 2002 to Books


I enjoy your writing Matthew.
I don't have a coffee table as such, but keep a couple of books in the bathroom for people to read when they're sitting down on the job.
One is that great American Invention "The Onion", and the other is another compilation by a young comedy team we had over here in the eighties called "Not 1982" - because that was the year it was written, obviously.
The best thing about it is the erratum slip in the front which simply says: "This is the wrong book."
Kind regards, Raoul, London

Posted by: Raoul de Bunsen on November 4, 2002 5:28 AM