Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.
For my first review, I’m reading Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbot. Fun fact: my friend Jody told me the middle “A” in Abbot’s name stands for Abbot, too. Is it stereotyping to think that with a name like Edwin Abbot Abbot this guy is probably A.) British, and B.) upper class? Maybe, but it turns out to be true. (I just checked Wikipedia on that, so you know it’s right.) Abbot’s also a Victorian, if that influences your opinions one way or the other.
Flatland is a book containing a lot of geometry and other types of math, and as such, I’m approaching it with a slight sense of dread. (Is geometry a type of math? I seem to recall it vaguely from my high school days. As I recall, I didn’t like that class, so I’m guessing it is indeed a type of math.) According to the book’s introduction, a reviewer in the late 1800s called it “mortally tedious,” and if I know one thing about Victorian critics, it’s that if they call something boring, then I’m in trouble. So basically, this book already seems to have a couple of strikes against it.
But wait! Apparently Abbot was an Anglican minister—“Boring as hell,” I hear you saying—who viewed himself as a kind of prophet! So this book must be a kind of allegory, like the pieces that Jonathan Swift and William Blake write. A math allegory. A weird, spiritually suspect, math allegory. So, kind of fun? I don’t know what you want me to say here; I can’t stop reading it at this point—one of my biggest rules for this column is that I have to actually read every book. And yes, I know that I made up that rule and this is the first column and I could go back and retroactively change it, but that would make me feel like a cheater. Essentially, what I’m trying to say about Flatland is, it’s going to be that kind of book.
With books like this, tone carries the day when excitement fails. I’ve found that by switching my internal reading voice to a jovial-yet-scholarly old British man, this kind of book flies past. The book stays reader-friendly even when Abbot is writing about the finer points of how Flatland’s society operates. Imagine it this way: you are drinking brandy and smoking pipes with C.S. Lewis in a pub, by a fire, on a rainy afternoon. Lewis decides to tell you about his latest etymological research into the nuances of some Greek and Latin words. Sure, the talk may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but his pleasant voice and the warm surroundings are more than enough to keep you there. Reading this book is similar to that. Now I want a pipe.
Let’s get straight into it. The plot, whatever there is of it, revolves around a Mr. A. Square (get it?) who is completely two dimensional, and everyone else (ranging from triangles to hexagons to near-circles) in his world is completely flat, too. Square is visited by a sphere from Spaceland, who comes only once every millennium to reveal the gospel of the third dimension. The rest of the book is an account of how Square is completely unsuccessful in his attempts to convert the other shapes, and ends up in prison. Sad, right? Well, it would be, if the characters weren’t so…two dimensional. Rim shot!
Okay, so the book is seriously lacking in plot, which a novel doesn’t necessarily need, as long as it has ideas. And does this book have ideas! Chief among these, I would claim, is, don’t be an arrogant jerk. See, in the course of the rest of the book, Square travels to both Pointland and Lineland (the lands of no dimensions or just one) and laughs at the ignorance of their inhabitants. He has a conversation with the king of Lineland, and the upshot of this is, “It seemed that the poor ignorant Monarch—as he called himself—was persuaded that the straight line which he called his Kingdom, and in which he passed his existence, constituted the whole of the world, and indeed the whole of space” (101). Do you see where this is going? For a major part of the book, Square can’t even fathom the existence of a third dimension. Now, expand that progression a little further, to the inhabitants of the third dimension (us), who can’t fathom the existence of a fourth dimension, and you start to grasp the power of this idea. The argument that we are small and limited in our knowledge is a convincing one, and Abbot makes a great case for there being something more out there.
At the same time, this is a good book for our new modern age, because it doesn’t give us easy answers; while it makes the argument for something bigger than us being out there, it neglects to tell us what that something more is. This might be a weakness of the book—the incompleteness of Abbot’s arguments and metaphors—but the base idea is a hard one to refute.
So, angles! Points! Lines! Progressions! If I keep using exclamation points, it will all sound exciting. The fact that Abbot makes the book even a little entertaining is a testament to his skill. This is a guy who knows how to make a point. And a line. And an angle…
All that said, I recommend this book. After all, it’s only about 160 pages sopping wet, so what do you have to lose? And if it hits you at the right point in your life, it could be very influential, though hopefully not in the bad way, which of course I mean as the way that makes you want to become a mathematician.