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November 1, 2010

New Books: Built to Last

This is a new book that’s also nostalgic for me: My parents bought me a copy of David Macaulay’s Cathedral when I was eleven or so, and it more or less lasted me all my childhood. (A true ethnocentric New Yorker even at that age, I initially thought it was about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which was a few blocks from our apartment. I don’t really remember, but I’m hoping I didn’t come across more than a couple of references to medieval times before realizing my mistake….)

All of Macaulay’s work, from the early architectural books to The New Way Things Work and the more recent The Way We Work, is nearly as fascinating to me now as an adult as it was (or would have been) when I was a child. The author is deservedly renowned for his use of illustration to clarify and explain just about anything, and the three books that make up the new compendium Built to LastCastle, Cathedral, and Mosque—established that reputation. In them, Macaulay delineates, step by step, the amazing process of construction of these three mammoth structures in the 13th (for the first two) and 16th centuries.

Children with a taste for architectural renderings or simply drawing in three dimensions will be dazzled by all three, naturally. But those less gifted in spatial intelligence—and I most certainly count myself among them—will also find a lot to love. As readers of any of Macaulay’s books know, the author is driven to analyze and explain everything about a subject, and so he delves into the historical background of these buildings as well: not just how, but why they were built, and what purpose they served in their worlds politically and socially. It’s a take on nonfiction writing for children that’s had a deep influence on a generation of authors, and for good reason: It provides an awful lot for curious minds of all kinds to latch onto.

While I can’t recommend Built to Last enough to those who don’t already have copies of the original volumes at home—the three-in-one makes a nice gift!—parents who hung on to their old childhood editions for their own kids may want to consider it as well. Because Macaulay wasn’t content to just repackage his books in one volume, in the traditional, low-effort way—instead, he took the opportunity to revisit his old classics. He’s made various changes and additions where he felt they were necessary or helpful, and he’s also rendered all of the first two books in color. (Both were originally all black-and-white.) The result is a book that feels far more integrated as one entity than most compilations of this sort do.

I’ll let the author himself have the last word, in this brief explanation of his goals for the updated, all-in-one edition of these books:

[Cover image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]


  1. Macauley is also the winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. I know his proud parents-in-law!

  2. Thank you so much for this recommendation! I have a 6 year old who wants to be an architect and I have struggled to find books for him. This seems like a great investment book:)