The Disappearing Spoon: Translations, Cover Art, and How to Make a Book More Interesting

I had never heard of Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon before coming across this wonderful little essay in Slate.  The book itself looks like quite a fascinating read:  a collection of true stories relating the comic, tragic, and often macabre origins of the periodic table of elements.

Kean’s little piece in Slate talks nothing of the books content, however.  To set up the context, have a look at the book’s American cover:

Makes sense.  There’s the titular disappearing spoon, along with a font and layout that shouts “HISTORY!” and some ominous clouds in the background to give the whole thing a tinge of the sinister.  Fits perfectly with the book’s full title:  The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Now, imagine you’re the author and you receive the following copy of the Taiwan edition in the mail.

Ok, a spoon.  Good so far.  An x-ray image of a hand – sure, that’s how the Curies first used radium.  Moving down the cover… title, author, an anime sperm,  a ….wait.  Hold on a sec… Optimus Prime?  Two women in separate, but equally, provocative poses?  A flaccid dil…  Huuuuhhhh???

This was pretty much Kean’s reaction.

 I couldn’t make sense of what looked like Transformers logos for “gold” and “plutonium.” But most baffling were the smutty icons: a smiling anime sperm (“hydrogen”), two naked women thrust into suggestive poses (“barium” and “iodine”), and a slightly drooping dildo named “zinc.” (Why not silicon?)…I never thought of myself as writing something a teenage boy might stash beneath his mattress. (The iodine story in The Disappearing Spoon talked about those noted hunks Gandhi and Bertrand Russell.) Was this a gross mistranslation? Dadaist whimsy?

Kean manages to track down the cover designer to get to the bottom of this.  Her answers?

We usually have many technology books, [which] are serious, serious, serious, and bored!!” she wrote via email. “So, this one, we want to make it more fun and interesting, to catch people’s eyes, and make them curious about it.

As for the half-deflated zinc male member…

When a men was weak in sex, his wife might give him some seafood, [and] the seafood have many zinc. That is why I draw that icon for zinc.

To paraphrase Kean, “Makes sense…sort of.”



  1. This post made my morning. I wonder what the readers thought when the book was not full of stories about Optimus Prime and anime sperm. I also wish the author had asked the cover designer to ask about each of her selected symbols.

    1. Yeah, had I picked up that book based on the cover and found a whole bunch of completely unrelated historical anecdotes, I’d probably feel a bit cheated. But, we’ll see how the book actually is. Thanks for coming by!

  2. I laughed at the Transformers reference. I’m still not sure any of those pictures would have put me over the edge to buy the book. It was a good attempt, though. It seems like every book I pick up lately has a Twilight-esque cover on it so I appreciate the originality. 🙂

    1. It’s just so random – as is so many things over on this side of the world. The originality and the reasoning behind the pictures was quite clever and I’m sure that it sucked in a few readers to what was an amazing book.

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