I originally did this following review in GeekMom on July 3. Enjoy, May fans.
I need to issue a caveat to James May fans: you’re likely going to purchase this book (if you haven’t already), no matter what I say.
This one will simply be another addition to the “Captain Slow”-centric book collection of gadget-y passions and intelligent witticisms, expected by anyone who reads May’s standalone books, like "Car Fever" or "How to Land an A330 Airbus," as well as his companion books for his television works, like "James May’s Man Lab" or "Toy Stories."
If you’re an American reader, you’ve waited patiently for it to arrive from a UK bookseller, so you can race through its content in a shorter time than it took to make its way across the Atlantic.
And, if you’re a geek for May’s insight on of the history of how things work, you loved this book.
If you’re any of these things, this review isn’t for you, but please stick around.
This review is for everyone else. At least it’s for everyone who loves to explore mechanics, technology, history, and western culture. This is for those who might have never tuned into an episode of "Top Gear" or T"he Grand Tour," yet look for the “Things Come Apart” feature in every "Popular Mechanics" issue.
This review is for anyone with a yearning to learn about how things are made, but wants to avoid any heavy textbook-style writing during the summer months.
For those readers, as well as May hardcores, I will disassemble "The Reassembler" in three parts to give you a better look at why it is worth the read.
‘The Reassembler’ combines a sleek design, good storytelling, and informational bits and pieces assembled into one fine read. Image: Lisa Tate
First, let’s judge this book by its cover… and design.
The presentation of this book is almost like a celebrity cookbook for those desiring a recipe for how things work, rather than May’s home recipe for fish finger sandwiches (although he does include a recipe for chocolate cake). However, don’t expect step-by-step instructions on how to actually assemble—or reassemble—your own ’80s-era electric guitar.
Any hope of doing this are dashed by May’s reluctant disclaimer: “At the insistence of a bunch of old women I must point out that this book does not condone reassembly. Reassembly is a potentially dangerous activity.”
In other words, you could put an eye out, kid. Don’t try this at home.
The text is sparse and stylized, and the images range from posed photos from the television series, to nostalgic ads, nice and artsy tool images, but most importantly, “exploded images” of each item discussed and reassembled in the book.
The cover design gives is almost an art book appeal, worthy of coffee table status. It would be a shame to hide this one away on a shelf.
If you can’t actually build anything from this book, why bother reading it? Simply put, it’s a fun and easy read.
The Reassembler may not be intended as an instruction manual, but it does give the reader a page-turning conversational look at May’s experience of rebuilding the items from his series.
May doesn’t just show you “how” something goes together, he often tells you why each part is there, as well as his own feelings about the item’s workings, functions, and the era in which it was created.
One of the cooler items in the book is the Dansette Bermuda Portable Record Player, a 1950 era turntable, whose vintage design would be the envy of the modern day vinyl collector.
He discusses how each and every piece of its design suggests “speed and progress,” important elements of the burgeoning teen culture.
“The speaker grille hints at the American muscle car, the rotary knobs are infilled with gold accents, and the font used on the cream control levers is bold and sans-serif,” he explains. “Space flight, contemporary furniture and Doo-Wop architecture are all subtly invoked by the shape of the Dansette, the wooden care of which is literally wallpapered, and in a pattern that was almost certainly described at the time as ‘jazzy.'”
This is typical of May’s laborious attention to the detail of the items he worked with, and anyone with a love of building, engineering, graphic design, or any other creative endeavor can appreciate this.
The Educational Value
It could be argued that any book you pick up is going to teach you something (even a poorly written book can teach you how not to write a book). The Reassembler, in my opinion, could be used supplemental reading from high school level shop or design classes, as well as social studies or history, as it sometimes looks at how everything from culture to consumerism influences every kind of material product.
When we look at the tools we had (and have), the items they built, and the purpose these items were built for, we can learn much about the people of any given era.
It can also, by May’s own personal reflections, teach us that everyone’s own childhood memories and perception continue to steer our adulthood quirks. For example, he talked about how old office equipment gave him “the creeps,” and how much he is not a fan of old telephones.
“Maybe I feel this way because, as a very small child, I believed that words spoken into the phone stayed in there somewhere, rather in the way I believed that the Woodentops were actually inside the television in an age before televisions became too thin for this idea to be credible,” he said. “A part of me expects a disassembled old telephone to release the stale breath of the dead.”
He even discusses this in his introduction. Although reassembly is a form of therapy for him, he is happy with today’s less tinkerer-friendly items in a disposable society.
“(It) doesn’t bother me that my mobile phone doesn’t come apart,” he says. “By the time I bust it a better one will be available, which is how it should be.”
There is also his plea for the end to screwdriver abuse, some thoughts on the difference between screws and bolts, and other informational tidbits.
My overall assessment of this book is that May wanted to create an attractive little book that would not only inform and entertain those who already have an appreciation for gears, gadgets, and tools, but encourage others into this curious and crafty cult of makers and musers.
I think May has done that here.
May has expressed his pleasant surprise at how many others have enjoyed the reassembly process, in the book’s release announcements.
“I’m delighted to be writing a book about putting things back together, because it’s a subject that fascinates me, but which I assumed was a lonely passion that I would take to the grave, unconsummated by the normal channels of human interaction,” May said. “But we Reassemblers are not alone: our screwdrivers are our flashing Excaliburs as we sally forth to make small parts of the fragmented world whole again.”
This is true, and for those us who love to take things apart and put them back together, we are always thankful when May lets us watch from across the workbench.
The hardcover version of The Reassembler was released June 1, with the paperback available in May of 2018. An audiobook is also available, read by May himself, with Audible.
Want do to a little "decostrucing" on your own? Yeah, you do! I've included an "UN-Do-It-Yourself" on in my sister tribe, "Parts and Craft."