The Cartoon Guide to Calculus

The Cartoon Guide to Calculus

I knew Larry Gonick did excellent illustrated histories, but I had no idea that he knew so much about math. (Although co-writing The Cartoon Guide to Statistics might have been a hint. Turns out he used to teach calculus at Harvard.)

In The Cartoon Guide to Calculus, “the mathematics of change”, we begin with brief history (Newton and Leibniz), but quickly, we’re into formulas and functions. However, even those are accompanied by cartoon kibitzing, which makes the material come alive and be more memorable. It’s also a pleasant change to read a textbook done in what resembles hand lettering.

There’s a big difference between this book and The Manga Guide to Calculus. In that book, the educational material takes second place to the comics. In The Cartoon Guide to Calculus, the math learning is front-and-center. I believe that this could be used as a textbook, while the manga version would work only as a supplement to another text. (You’ll need to know some algebra and trigonometry going in, though.)

The Cartoon Guide to Calculus

The Cartoon Guide to Calculus is pretty dense, with lots of material covered quickly, and the book even includes problem sets. Chapters cover functions (drawn as lumpy monsters that eat x values and expel f(x) — a memorable if tawdry visual approach), limits and proofs, derivatives (the rate of change of a function), related rates and optimization, and integrals. Gonick’s character is often accompanied by a Han Solo-esque experimenter named Delta Wye. I know it’s a minor thing, but I’m reassured to see her included — it’s a necessary reminder that women can do math too.

The book is immediately approachable. That’s not only the benefit of using cartoons, which are friendly, but also due to Gonick’s cutely professorial analogue talking directly to the reader. Gonick’s visual imagination provides fresh and vividly notable ways to remember concepts. I learned new ways to think about math here, often supported by cogent, clever pictures. Do note that this isn’t a book to give a comic fan, unless they really want to learn calculus; it’s an illustrated text, content to teach, not show off the art. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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