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Artist Macaulay Decodes Body In 'Way We Work'

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Artist Macaulay Decodes Body In 'Way We Work'

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Artist Macaulay Decodes Body In 'Way We Work'

Artist Macaulay Decodes Body In 'Way We Work'

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Illustrator David Macaulay says he spent six intense years teaching himself — through conversations, anatomy classes and even sitting in on operations — how to draw the human body. Steven Heller hide caption

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Steven Heller

Illustrator David Macaulay says he spent six intense years teaching himself — through conversations, anatomy classes and even sitting in on operations — how to draw the human body.

Steven Heller

Macaulay's new book, The Way We Work: Getting To Know the Amazing Human Body, delves into the intricacies of the body. hide caption

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The Roller-Coaster Ride

David Macaulay says it was too diagrammatically difficult to chart the link between the respiratory system and the circulatory system.
"I finally just got frustrated and thought, 'Let's just do this as a ride,' " Macaulay says.

"So you can get on one of these red blood cells, and every time you passed through the lung, you would pick up some oxygen.

"And as you wandered through the rest of the ride, that oxygen would get off, and at some point during the ride, from certain cells you would pick up some carbon dioxide.

"And staying on the ride back to the heart, which would send you back into the lungs, you would then get rid of that CO2.

"Meanwhile, you've got oxygen getting on as we breathe in air, and you've got CO2, as I say, being exhaled, and sent back to the green leaves of the forest through which the ride travels so that they can help the leaves themselves produce more oxygen."

An illustration of the link between the respiratory system and the circulatory system. Macaulay says the roller coaster travels through "a big plywood heart." David Macaulay/Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. All rights reserved. hide caption

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David Macaulay/Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. All rights reserved.

An illustration of the link between the respiratory system and the circulatory system. Macaulay says the roller coaster travels through "a big plywood heart."

David Macaulay/Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. All rights reserved.

Illustrator David Macaulay, who has used drawings to teach himself — and then the rest of the world — how things work, has taken on another daunting task: the human body.

In The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body, Macaulay illustrates such complexities as cellular chemistry, how peoples' limbs move when they walk and how blood flows through the body.

"I knew actually nothing about myself, which was one of the reasons for doing the book," Macaulay tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "I had a complete ignorance of basic information. I don't know how that happened. My kids, who are 9 and 11, know much more than I do, and I thought I'd better catch up."

For six intense years, the best-selling author of Castle, Cathedral and, more recently, The Way Things Work read, talked to people, watched videotapes, sat in on a few operations and took a couple of anatomy courses. And then he let the creativity flow.

Macaulay says he was daunted by the rich tradition of medical drawings, so he created his own style.

"I thought, 'I can't possibly match any of this stuff,' " Macaulay says, referring to medical illustrators like Frank Netter. "So I think maybe part of going off in my own direction was a self-defensive approach. I'll do this my way, and I'll explain it my way. And as long as it makes sense and it teaches what I need to teach, then the drawings will work."

Macaulay, who won a MacArthur grant in 2006, says he found the images associated with the body "just so beautiful. ... They lent themselves to a tremendous variety of pictures."

But with the task at hand, Macaulay says he wasn't sure he could pull it off. He says he found some parts of the body particularly difficult to explain, like the brain and the immune system, and he would "develop a hostility towards" them.

"There were moments during this last six years when I really thought I had gone too far. I just felt, 'I'm not going to be able to do this, I will never know enough to be able to confidently illustrate or write a book about the way we work,' " Macaulay says. "I almost gave up a couple of times. I don't know exactly why I kept going."

But Macaulay says he delighted in those "moments of discovery when you sort of come across something that seems so wonderfully simple or extraordinary," like the interior lining of the small intestine — one of his favorite parts of the book.

"You've got a surface roughly the size of a tennis court that you have to squeeze inside the hose, which is the small intestine," he says. "And it's done so beautifully by the cells."

Macaulay says he didn't have a specific reader age in mind when he was putting the book together — he was doing it for himself.

"I don't know how to do it any other way," he says.