Thursday, January 2, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann is an odd book to ring in the new year. Translated from the original in German, this is a compelling depiction of two late eighteenth century geniuses: Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt.

The first, Gauss, is a mathematician and astronomer. Irritable and antisocial, Gauss’s discoveries are largely made in his head. He has little patience for those who can’t keep up with his thought processes. He did marry and have a family, but his wife died and his children disappointed him.

The second, Humboldt, is an explorer and naturalist, with interests in all realms of science. Best known for an extensive expedition to the Americas, alongside a companion named Bonpland, he was an avid measurer and collector. He feared nothing except women.

This novel presents scenes from each of the men’s lives, interweaving them with a meeting in Berlin, orchestrated by Humboldt, who hopes for a collaboration.

Narrated distantly by an omniscient narrator who, deadpan, scatters in absurdities, the book relies on tell, not show. The technique works extremely well given the subject matter. Although the reader is kept at a long arm’s length from the protagonists, nevertheless portraits of the two men emerge. Readers can derive a sense of wonder at how far before their time these men were, and how much they accomplished.