Michael Macrone

What They’re Writing: Michael Macrone
(San Jose Mercury News, September 17, 1995)

By Diane Manuel
San Jose Mercury News

On his first visit to England this summer, Michael Macrone wandered into a bookstore in London one afternoon and discovered that “Eureka! What Archimedes Really Meant,” his most recent off-beat reference book, was No. 3 on the store's list of hardcover favorites. “Then I went to the National Museum and saw 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare!,' which had recently been reissued in paperback, on sale there,” he says. “I just had no idea.”

For the past five years the San Francisco writer has been turning out a new book every eight or nine months. Featuring titles such as “It's Greek to Me!" "By Jove!" and “Brush Up Your Bible!" the popular series has taken a whimsical look at such topics as Archimedes, fuzzy logic, cybernetics and manifest destiny.

"Part of the idea of the series is to be entertaining,” Macrone says. “I wanted to look at various figures in the arts and culture that had been worshiped and put up on pedestals, and sort of take them down a peg — while respecting the reasons why they'd been canonized.”

With advanced degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Brown University, Macrone has the kind of eclectic training that appears to have been purposely assembled for writers of popularized reference works. An authority on Elizabethan drama who has studied higher mathematics and semiotics (the study of signs and how ideas are communicated in various media), Macrone designs World Wide Web sites and also plays guitar in the rock group Dreamland, performing several times a month at clubs in the Haight and East Bay.

He says he probably could write books about Shakespeare “in his sleep,” but by doing them in his waking hours he also provides the lively graphic design for the text. “Animalogies," due in October, is a combination of animal lore, etymology and analogies.

“I tried to take a look at people's strange ideas about animals — like the notion that ostriches stick their heads in the sand — or familiar sayings, like 'happy as a clam,' and see where they come from. That particular expression comes from an older saying, ‘happy as a clam at high tide,' which seems to make more sense.”

For “Lessons on Living from William Shakespeare,” scheduled for publication in March, Macrone chose 356 lines from the Bard's works that comprise sections on business and money, love and marriage, hate and jealousy. I'm trying to show people that when you quote from Shakespeare out of context, like the line 'Get thee to a nunnery,' you're not necessarily quoting what Shakespeare himself thought about the right way to woo and love.

"You can read all the plays and come away practically none the wiser for what he believed. You hear his characters speaking, but only very rarely can you say, 'That was Shakespeare, not Hamlet.'”

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