Thursday, February 7, 2008

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

I picked up Measuring the World to read for my book group. It is definitely not a book I would have picked up on my own. But, I am glad that I read it. However, I can't imagine that everyone else will necessarily feel the same way. It is a different book, that's for sure.
Kehlmann has intertwined the story of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, two early nineteenth century German scientists who lived contemporaneously and, in Kehlmann's book, shared scientific ideas in their later life. The confluence of these two very different men makes up the body of the story as Kehlmann alternates chapters showing how these men worked and interacted with people and the world around them.
I found the book terribly funny. But, I know that not everyone agrees. Kehlmann used very dry humor to poke fun at what the world looked like at the height of the Enlightenment. So many of the figures in the book viewed themselves as the pinnacle of civilization and yet in one short understated sentence Kehlmann completely pulled the rug out from underneath them. The humor is hard to explain without actually reading the book - there are jokes that just don't translate well.
Without a doubt, this is a very academic book. Many of the underlying principles rely on the reader knowing Europe during Napoleon's reign. The emphasis on nationality and passports, the intrigue as von Humboldt travels around the world, the missionaries who see themselves as helping the natives: each of these represents an understanding of psycho-social interpretations of human destiny in the nineteenth century.
Moreover, I was intrigued by the personal stories of the two scientists. There is not a story, per se, instead there are anecdotes that combine to give the reader a better sense of the men, but more importantly of the time in which they lived. The juxtaposition of Gauss who never left home if he could help himself and von Humboldt who traveled far and wide makes for an interesting read. That at the end of their life the two men met in the middle wrapped up the book neatly.
I don't know who I would recommend this book to - aside from those rare people like me who are fascinated by weird minutiae of European history. Or scientists who have a much better understanding than I do of the scientific experiments and view of the world that Gauss and von Humboldt had. It was quirky, but I'm glad I read it.

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