Deconstructing James May’s ‘The Reassembler’ Book

Reading Time: 7 minutes
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In ‘The Reassembler’ book by James May, every part makes a difference, and has a story. Image: Lisa Tate

This month, The Grand Tour co-host, and prolific broadcaster, writer, and tinkerer James May, released his latest book, The Reassembler, inspired by his BBC4 series of the same name.

I need to issue a caveat to James May fans: you’re likely going to purchase this book (if you haven’t already), no matter what I say.

This one will simply be another addition to the “Captain Slow”-centric book collection of gadget-y passions and intelligent witticisms, expected by anyone who reads May’s standalone books, like Car Fever or How to Land an A330 Airbus, as well as his companion books for his television works, like James May’s Man Lab or Toy Stories.

If you’re an American reader, you’ve waited patiently for it to arrive from a UK bookseller, so you can race through its content in a shorter time than it took to make its way across the Atlantic.

And, if you’re a geek for May’s insight on of the history of how things work, you loved this book.

If you’re any of these things, this review isn’t for you, and you can quit reading right now.

This review is for everyone else. At least it’s for everyone who loves to explore mechanics, technology, history, and western culture. This is for those who might have never tuned into an episode of Top Gear or The Grand Tour, yet look for the “Things Come Apart” feature in every Popular Mechanics issue.

This review is for anyone with a yearning to learn about how things are made, but wants to avoid any heavy textbook-style writing during the summer months.

For those readers, I will disassemble The Reassembler in three parts to give you a better look at why it is worth the read.

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‘The Reassembler’ combines a sleek design, good storytelling, and informational bits and pieces assembled into one fine read. Image: Lisa Tate

The Presentation

First, let’s judge this book by its cover… and design.

The presentation of this book is almost like a celebrity cookbook for those desiring a recipe for how things work, rather than May’s home recipe for fish finger sandwiches (although he does include a recipe for chocolate cake). However, don’t expect step-by-step instructions on how to actually assemble—or reassemble—your own ’80s-era electric guitar.

Any hope of doing this are dashed by May’s reluctant disclaimer: “At the insistence of a bunch of old women I must point out that this book does not condone reassembly. Reassembly is a potentially dangerous activity.”

In other words, you could put an eye out, kid. Don’t try this at home.

Dang it.

The text is sparse and stylized, and the images range from posed photos from the television series, to nostalgic ads, nice and artsy tool images, but most importantly, “exploded images” of each item discussed and reassembled in the book.

The cover design gives is almost an art book appeal, worthy of coffee table status. It would be a shame to hide this one away on a shelf.

 The Readability

If you can’t actually build anything from this book, why bother reading it? Simply put, it’s a fun and easy read.

The Reassembler may not be intended as an instruction manual, but it does give the reader a page-turning conversational look at May’s experience of rebuilding the items from his series.

May doesn’t just show you “how” something goes together, he often tells you why each part is there, as well as his own feelings about the item’s workings, functions, and the era in which it was created.

One of the cooler items in the book is the Dansette Bermuda Portable Record Player, a 1950 era turntable, whose vintage design would be the envy of the modern day vinyl collector.

He discusses how each and every piece of its design suggests “speed and progress,” important elements of the burgeoning teen culture.

“The speaker grille hints at the American muscle car, the rotary knobs are infilled with gold accents, and the font used on the cream control levers is bold and sans-serif,” he explains. “Space flight, contemporary furniture and Doo-Wop architecture are all subtly invoked by the shape of the Dansette, the wooden care of which is literally wallpapered, and in a pattern that was almost certainly described at the time as ‘jazzy.'”

This is typical of May’s laborious attention to the detail of the items he worked with, and anyone with a love of building, engineering, graphic design, or any other creative endeavor can appreciate this.

The Educational Value

It could be argued that any book you pick up is going to teach you something (even a poorly written book can teach you how not to write a book). The Reassembler, in my opinion, could be used supplemental reading from high school level shop or design classes, as well as social studies or history, as it sometimes looks at how everything from culture to consumerism influences every kind of material product.

When we look at the tools we had (and have), the items they built, and the purpose these items were built for, we can learn much about the people of any given era.

It can also, by May’s own personal reflections, teach us that everyone’s own childhood memories and perception continue to steer our adulthood quirks. For example, he talked about how old office equipment gave him “the creeps,” and how much he is not a fan of old telephones.

“Maybe I feel this way because, as a very small child, I believed that words spoken into the phone stayed in there somewhere, rather in the way I believed that the Woodentops were actually inside the television in an age before televisions became too thin for this idea to be credible,” he said. “A part of me expects a disassembled old telephone to release the stale breath of the dead.”

He even discusses this in his introduction. Although reassembly is a form of therapy for him, he is happy with today’s less tinkerer-friendly items in a disposable society.

“(It) doesn’t bother me that my mobile phone doesn’t come apart,” he says. “By the time I bust it a better one will be available, which is how it should be.”

There is also his plea for the end to screwdriver abuse, some thoughts on the difference between screws and bolts, and other informational tidbits.

My overall assessment of this book is that May wanted to create an attractive little book that would not only inform and entertain those who already have an appreciation for gears, gadgets, and tools, but encourage others into this curious and crafty cult of makers and musers.

I think May has done that here.

May has expressed his pleasant surprise at how many others have enjoyed the reassembly process, in the book’s release announcements.

“I’m delighted to be writing a book about putting things back together, because it’s a subject that fascinates me, but which I assumed was a lonely passion that I would take to the grave, unconsummated by the normal channels of human interaction,” May said. “But we Reassemblers are not alone: our screwdrivers are our flashing Excaliburs as we sally forth to make small parts of the fragmented world whole again.”

This is true, and for those us who love to take things apart and put them back together, we are always thankful when May lets us watch from across the workbench.

The hardcover version of The Reassembler was released June 1, with the paperback available in May of 2018. An audiobook is also available, read by May himself, with Audible.

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If you want an appreciation for how even the simplest items work, take it apart. Image: Lisa Tate

Bonus Do-It-Yourself: An Undo-It-Yourself Shadowbox

May’s book warns anyone who attempts their own deconstructing/reconstructing of the items mentioned in the book to do so “at their own risk,” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try out your own project with your kids.

One of my favorite features of The Reassembler is the “exploded views,” of the pre-assembled items. This not only shows the work that goes into even the simplest most seemingly mundane items, but it reveals even the smallest parts have their function in the “bigger picture.” It’s like a philosophy lesson on a bench.

You can share this simple appreciation of “how things work” with kids, as well as give them a unique decoration for their wall or shelf with a simple exploded view mounting of a small discarded toy or dollar store find. Avoid anything to complicated or something with a plug. Small wind-up toys are a fun place to start.

Image: Lisa Tate

I found a nifty little 99¢ battery-operated car toy with LED lights for my example.

Work on a large, flat clean surface and take it apart, piece-by-piece. Don’t just wedge in a screwdriver and yank things apart. Look at the toy, and the tools it might have taken to put it together. Then, as you take each piece off, lay it in an organized pattern on the work surface. If there is a small mechanism inside with more than one piece, take these small pieces apart as well.

Now, I need to emphasize, May is right to warn reassembling some things is dangerous. So is disassembling things. Even small, plastic toys can be a hazard. Make sure younger helpers have eye protection, and stay away from any harmful materials.

Once the entire piece is apart, it’s time to mount the pieces for display. Use a shadow box frame, or sturdy gift box top if you don’t want to spend more money on the display frame than you did on the item itself.

In an organized, attractive pattern, arrange these pieces into the frame, then, one at a time, adhere each piece onto the surface with a glue gun or plastic model glue.

Of course, you by no means have to glue and mount these pieces. You could, if you’re up to the challenge, live dangerously and reassemble it. Good luck.

It took 49 pieces to make one little plastic car toy. Image: Lisa Tate