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Book Review: Introducing Epigenetics - A Graphic Guide

27 February 2017
Appeared in BioNews 890

Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide

By Dr Cath Ennis and Oliver Pugh

Published by Icon Books

ISBN-10: 1848318626, ISBN-13: 978-1848318625

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Introducing Epigenetics: A graphic guide' is a mini-textbook pitched as a non-fiction comic book. I enjoy comics and graphic novels, and I've often thought this medium would be perfect for illustrating complex scientific concepts, so I was looking forward to reading it. It's a friendly-looking book, smaller than A5 so fits perfectly in your bag for reading on public transport – or so I thought. Unfortunately, despite the colourful cover and perky graphics inside, this book does not make for light reading.

The pages follow almost the same layout through the book – chunk of text, zany illustration. Sometimes there are bits of old stock photos, rearranged into collages, or scientific diagrams, presented in a wavy, hand-drawn format. These are all spliced with labels or speech bubbles. It was a bit like being in a classroom. First we'd get a short, serious lecture by the teacher; then there would be a joke and punchline shouted by the class clown from the back of the room.

I couldn't make my mind up if the graphics were helping or hindering. Sometimes they were there for pure humorous relief, but not exactly by making you laugh, just by abruptly dropping in a silly comment. 'I didn't know this field would get so complicated so quickly!' said a generic stock-photo cut-out figure, holding a list that had been cut-and-pasted into his hand.

On the next page, a football linesman holds up a substitution sign. 'Histone variants can substitute for the standard histone proteins when needed. A variant called N2A.X replaces histone H2A in damaged parts of the genome that need repair,' she said. Right. No joke there – that was actually a rather important bit of text to read, in order to understand the next page.

The graphics flip-flop between these two extremes and so can't be ignored, in case they hold a heavy delivery of scientific information. Nor can you casually flip through the pages, just looking at the graphics, and expect to be either entertained or to know what on earth is going on.

The content of the book is pure science – how DNA works, how it is duplicated and inherited, how gene expression is regulated, what epigenetic modifications are and how they work. The scientists who made key discoveries are named but that's it – no anecdotes, no sociological or historical asides, no inventive metaphors, unless you count the occasionally successful visual one.

The book was created by two people, a scientist and an illustrator, and I wondered if that explained the disjointed feel of the text and graphics. Perhaps if they'd worked together more closely, the illustrations could have actually helped to explain the science. As it was, I found the graphics to be distracting chunks of jargon to decipher. They did not build up to a visual metaphor, but switched rapidly in presentation or content or even meaning (silly humour or heavy science? Who knows?!). The contrast of goofy graphics or casual humour with the ultra-serious, science-lecture tone of the text on each page rapidly became jarring till sometimes felt like the two voices – teacher and class clown – were both shouting for my attention on the same topic. Occasionally, the clown seemed to give up entirely – a section on cancer cells is represented by two pages of text encircled in squiggled lines. This, I assumed, was supposed to represent the 'chaotic distortion' of cancer cells described in the first line.

There are short headed chapters and a glossary at the rear of the book, but no index and no contents page. This made navigating the book rather hard. As I read laboriously through pages defining histone acetylation, histone phosphorylation, and histone ADP-ribosylation, for instance, occasionally I'd forget the names of these processes and had to plough back through the pages to find them again. Several times I put the book away, filled vaguely with more information about nuclear processes, and then later I'd try and pick up where I'd left off, or at the last parts I remembered. An index would really have helped here. The book might clock in at 176 pages and be small to hold, but it did not succeed in making scientific information any easier to take in.

I haven't yet found a great science comic. I've read biographies of scientists, told in graphic format (like 'Feynman' or 'Logicomix'), or comics pitched at explaining biology to kids (Medikidz). When I saw the cover of this book, I thought this might be it, but sadly it was not. The graphics were just irritating. Sometimes I wanted to say, 'this is a lot to take in'; at other times I wanted to shout, 'Stop patronising me!'

I suppose this could be a useful book for university students who need to know about epigenetics, although there are much better ones out there – such as The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey. Although I'm a big fan of comics and graphic novels, in this case, I think would have preferred just to read a straight textbook.

Buy Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide from Amazon UK.

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