In the world of nonfiction publishing, a number of book series have been introduced that reconnect readers with their undergraduate education. A bookseller’s reference section will most likely have volumes from the following series: “Things I Used to Know” series from Reader’s Digest; “The Intellectual Devotional” series from Rodale Press; “The Bedside Baccalaureate” series from Sterling; the single topic summaries (Politics, Religion, Psychology, Philosophy, Economics) from DK, and the “50 Ideas” series from Quercus. However, in that crowded field, one series really stands out: “101 Things I Learned” (101TIL) written and illustrated by Matthew Frederick.
The series has its genesis in the age-old proverb “necessity is the mother of invention.” Back in 2005, when America’s great modern recession crippled the construction industry, Frederick, who was trained as an architect and urban designer, saw the architecture market dry up within months and realized he needed a way to supplement his income. Frederick, who was teaching at the time, had created a handout for his students that summarized the tenets of architecture — his epiphany was that this handout was the perfect foundation (pun intended) for the architecture book and later, the series.
Frederick spoke to Bookshelf about his thought process for the book series: “I like to think there are two ways to be introduced to a subject: first, to introduce the basic concepts, the ABC’s (e.g., the Architecture book: how to draw a line) and second, to explore the profound questions that underlie a specific endeavor (e.g., the Law book: the difference between honesty and truthfulness). The former is concerned with mechanics and the latter with meaning. The 101TIL books aim to provide a balance of the two.”
Similar to some of the authors of the other educational book series, Frederick was motivated to take many of the lessons from a formal education that were obscured or dulled by teachers whose presentations lacked passion, imagination, clarity, and succinctness. Frederick elaborates: “The first book [Architecture book] grew out of a deep well of frustration as an architecture student that my instructors were so often unclear, and that every lesson was mitigated or cancelled out by the context. So I sought to create 101 (relatively) concrete, dependable lessons. As the first book grew into a series, the goal has been to identify the common frustration of the beginning student in the given discipline. For the engineering student, a common frustration is the opposite of the architecture student: there’s too much specificity (lots of math, physics, statics, etc.) and very little context. So while architecture students are masterplanning a college campus, engineering students are looking at vectors and solving equations. So the lessons in the Engineering book emphasize context. Instead of teaching, say, harmonic resonance by stating, ‘Harmonic resonance is the phenomenon of blah blah blah…,’ we start with a contextual example: ‘Soldiers should not march across a bridge,’ and then work toward the engineering principle.”
In addition to the clear, succinct writing style, another hallmark of the 101TL series is its simple design and its simple, but informative illustrations. Frederick enjoyed the process of developing illustrations for each of the books and worked diligently to make every stroke count: “A lot of the fun of the books is the illustrations. This was difficult for the Law book, because law is not inherently visual. But it’s also the thing that makes the book work. Law students are swimming in word-heavy tomes, which means an important learning medium — pictures — is ignored in the traditional law curriculum.” And as many communicators and educators know — taking complex topics, especially entire fields of study, and reducing them to their simplest, most basic lessons is challenging work.
Fortunately for Frederick, his inspiration, vision, and hard work have met with great success in the world of publishing. Since the series was published in 2007, more than 500,000 books have been sold worldwide, and the series has been translated into more 14 languages.
For further reading:
All written and illustrated by Matthew Frederick:
101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (2007)
101 Things I Learned in Film School (2010)
101 Things I Learned in Culinary School (2010)
101 Things I Learned in Business School (2010)
101 Things I Learned in Fashion School (2010)
101 Things I Learned in Engineering School (2013)
101 Things I Learned in Law School (2013)