Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
By Edwin Abbott Abbott
Published by LibriVox
Read by Ruth Golding
This is one of the many books that have been on my mountain of must-reads for a very long time. I have downloaded it as a free e-book, but never gotten around to reading it, mostly because when I am reading, then more often than not I am proof reading my own stories and that takes more than a single pass-through – Side note to anyone who has ever said, “I’d like to write.” Only write stuff you want to read. You’re going to be reading it again and again and again… and again and again and… well you get the picture, right?
Back to Flatland… I think I first became aware of this book when I was in college or grad school, but while intrigued, I never got around to doing more than flipping through a few pages. The book, while not entirely ignored on its publication in 1884, went pretty much unregarded until Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was published. Einstein introduced us to the concept of a fourth dimension. Since then, cosmologists have frequently used Flatland as an analogy for the universe as we currently understand it. It was because of the many books on that subject that I read (for fun, do you believe that? It’s true.) that I was drawn to Flatland.
Abbott had, in fact, proposed the possibility of more dimensions than the conventional three we live in. The first person character, Square, first describes his country. It is a very Victorian sort of society and Abbott has been accused of misogyny due to his depiction of women in “Flatland,” but while it may be my viewpoint as a one-time student of anthropology and archaeology, I see that more as an attempt at showing a different and yet civilized society from the one he actually lived in and with creatures who are not actually human. Perhaps the attempt is a bit clumsy, but keep in mind that he did not have a century of science fiction to draw inspiration from. So the women are one-dimensional creatures of emotion, while the men are multi-faceted and more intellectual. The more facets, in fact, the more intelligent and higher class.
Square begins his journey through the dimension when he first visits Lineland, a one-dimensional world in which the inhabitants are incapable of imagining any more than the single line they live on even when it becomes apparent that something is very different about Square. Next Square meets his “Teacher” Sphere, who in Flatland, seems to be a circle who changes in size and Square has the same problems of perception experienced by the king of Lineland until Sphere takes him to “Spaceland.” Square then has an epiphany of sorts and wonders about world with four, five, six and more dimensions, but when he attempts to discuss this notion with Sphere, Sphere is offended and leaves Square back in Flatland. After that Sphere returns in a dream and shows Square the sole inhabitant of “Pointland.”
Finally, as Square tries to explain the concept of three dimensions to the people of his world he is branded a heretic and imprisoned for life. So…. Not exactly a happy ending.
The story not only explores mathematical concepts somewhat ahead of its time, but can be considered a biting social satire both on Victorian life and insular thinking in general with each form of life thinking he is the highest form and unwilling to accept that there may be an existence in a still higher form.
This one is definitely worth reading. In fact, I would propose it ought to be required reading in high school, possibly at the same time students are studying geometry. Certainly, it is both more entertaining and instructive than some of the other 19th Century rubbish students are forced to digest in the name of literature. Ethan Frome, Silas Marner, Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, etc. seem more chosen to discourage people from reading as a pastime or education than the opposite. Flatland is a clearly-written, and easily comprehended story that nonetheless introduces thought-provoking concepts. Exactly the sort of thing we say high school students are supposed to read.
Now why do I hear the local school board replying, “Wait. What? People actually thinking? Could be dangerous. We’ll have none of that! Make ‘em read Ivanhoe again! Oh and make The Scarlet Letter required reading twice. That’ll shut them up.” When I think back on the literary travesties I was forced to digest in high school, I wonder why I ever thought reading was fun and I think it amazing that, with a literate foundation like that, I ever decided to write stories of my own, but apparently some of those books are on the reading list because someone figured that if the allegory was baseball-bat-to-the-head subtle and the reading put one to sleep, it must be great literature and generations of teachers grew up learning these were literary masterpieces and passing that opinion on to their students.
I admit that finding a good reading list that all will agree on is difficult and/or impossible and certainly a lot of popular fiction on the shelves these days is literary diarrhea. So many books on the reading lists have little to no relevance to the students forced to read them and when you take them apart, most are not particularly well-written unless you like reading stories by authors who are so addicted to adjectives that they cannot write a noun without adorning it with two, three or more extra words tacked on to it.
Where was I? Oh, yeah… Flatland. Good book. Read it!
As Ruth Golding began to narrate the introductory materials to this recording, my first impression was “Oh no! I’m being read to by a stern English librarian!” I’m not sure why I equated the near emotionless recitation of “This is a LibriVox recording” with the vocal mannerisms of a librarian. Honestly, I have known many librarians in my life and none of them are like that, but Hollywood stereotypes persist, I guess. They are not fair to the librarians of this world and are also not fair to Ms Golding,
I looked her up and unlike some of LibriVox’s volunteers, Ruth Golding is a professional reader who brings her great vocal talents to audiobooks in a great array of genres. You can find RuthieG’s CataBlog (Love the name!!!) right here at WordPress.
Once past the usual boilerplate, Ruth Golding’s voice sprang to life with a full emotional range that made Square a real and feeling person. There is a sense of wonder as Square discovers dimensions beyond the mere two he was born to.
The only fault in listening to this book is not that of the reader. Flatland is filled with illustrations designed by Abbott to help the reader envision the world as seen by Square. The text without those illustrations can be hard to follow when Square describes his world so the reader must stop every so often to describe the diagram the text refers to. A picture is worth a thousand words, I am told and this seems to be roughly true in this case. It breaks up the flow of the story, but honestly cannot be helped if you are to listen to this audiobook and still understand what is going on.
She read this story wonderfully and I really recommend this recording and I look forward to enjoying more of her recordings.