XKCD: vol 0, Randall Munroe

<em class="BookTitle">XKCD: vol 0</em>, Randall Munroe

Breadpig, 2009, 111001 pages, US$18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-615-31446-4

Faithful readers are probably over-familiar by now with the fact that I’m a proud and unrepentant nerd. As such, there’s probably no better book to prove my hard-core nerd credentials as a glowing review of Randall Munroe’s XKCD: Vol 0.

Over the past few years, the simple-but-sophisticated stick figures of the XKCD webcomics have become one of the emblems of Internet nerd culture. Making use of everything from philosophy to math theorems to videogames to computer science (with a heavy dose of sentimentality, as appropriate for “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”), XKCD is now a touchstone for a large chunk of Internet users from reddit to single-user blogs. Even a quick search for “an XKCD for everything” will reveal a surprising number of results. In the past, I’ve been able to refer to specific XKCD comics to instructors, friends, SF fans, online correspondents and other assorted hoodlums knowing that the reference would be immediately understood.

If you’ve never heard of XKCD, that may not be accidental: part of the peculiar pleasure of Munroe’s humor is the knowledge that very few people in the world can put together the elements of particular jokes. Twelve years after graduation, I’m still getting the most mileage out of my Computer Science degree from XKCD punchlines. As such, XKCD’s humor can be one of clubbish self-recognition more than actual amusement… so when I say that the book isn’t for everyone, don’t take it personally. It also serves to explain why, as of this writing, XKCD: vol 0 isn’t to be found at amazon.com: Mostly sold though the XKCD web site, it’s both a trophy of nerd devotion and a collection of 200 of the strip’s first 600 entries.

Many of the fan favourites (and perennial references) are there: “userdel megan” and “Cory Doctorow – cape and goggle” share the same page, while “citation needed”, “boom de yada”, “someone is wrong on the internet” aren’t too far after. Of course, other memorable strips didn’t make the cut (Where’s the Xenocide one?!), raising hope for a Compleat XKCD at some point in the future.

When they do get to that point, I hope that the design of the book is a bit better than the one here. While Munroe and his designer were able to solve such problems as the alt-caption gags (by putting them in the gutters between panels), the book occasionally frustrate by the lack of dates and titles, not to mention the lack of indications when strips are linked to others –the best example being between pages 11110 and 20000. Of course, other design touches just work beautifully. The book is crammed with small mathematical jokes (such as the skew binary page numbering scheme and the Fibonacci sequence replacing the edition number line on the copyright page), various forms of puzzles and additional comments and sketches in red ink.

Reading all the strips in succession never fails to bring a smile to my face (even paging through the book again while I’m writing this review), but I’m not so sure that the book is completely impenetrable to non-nerds: For one thing, there’s a surprising amount of romantic and philosophical material that benefits, but doesn’t require esoteric technical knowledge. For another, everyone on the Internet is a nerd of some sort or another, and XKCD is really good at finding jokes in mundane web experiences. There’s a mixture of whimsy and absurdity in XKCD comics that should reach even readers left unaffected by obscure references to cryptography theory, 4chan memes and Linux installations.

For those who do get all of those references, XKCD: vol 0 is exactly the book you need for Christmas. There’s at least half an hour of “Ooh, I can’t believe I remember that!” in stock alongside the more familiar gags and half-remembered punchlines. At a time where the Internet is being blamed for just about every social problem, it’s a comfort to realize that it also enables Randall Munroe to deliver a webcomic to such a highly-specialized readership… and others to make use of the jokes as they see fit.

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