One of the symptoms of my insane desire for order is my fondness for things that match. This manifests itself on my bookshelf in a number of ways: The very first books I bought, way back when, were boxed sets with matching covers; I arrange my books by publisher; and I have an over-weening fondness for publisher-based series with uniform covers.

That last manifested itself, when I was young, in the form of a gazillion DragonLance and Forgotten Realms books on my shelves. Since then, I've acquired more taste, and turned my eyes to Penguin Classics. So a few months ago, I was paging through the Penguin catalog, trying to figure out which books I wanted to buy when my eyes alighted (alit?) on Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland .

The name triggered up nostalgia. Somewhere along the way, as a kid, I'd read a book that focused on mathematical fiction and had excerpts from (among others since forgotten) The Phantom Tollbooth and Flatland, both of which I'd re-read time and again. For whatever reason, though, I'd never realized that the Flatland piece was just an excerpt from a longer work; having discovered that this was the case, I put the book on my buying list.

The bit I remember reading when young was a rather science-fictional thing that took the premise of a 2D universe populated by polygons, and tried to explain how the universe worked from the viewpoint of one of those shapes (the narrator is a Square). Interesting thoughts about how all different shapes looked like lines (since, of course, they're viewed edge-on), how sharp-pointed isosceles triangles serve in the military, how shapes of regular polygons are discerned by means of feeling a single angle, and so forth. It wasn't so much a story as an interesting thought-experiment.

So reading the actual book was a bit surprising. Oh, the mathematical gedankenexperiment layer was still there, but there was also an entire layer of socio-political commentary. Flatland, the reader comes to understand, is not just physically different from our own world, but politically different as well. What's particularly interesting about this is that Flatland is a piece of genuine Victoriana, written back in the late nineteenth century, so the politics have this charmingly quaint feel to them.

Actually, that's a good way to describe the entire book: Charmingly quaint. The entire book has a feel of musty scholarship; you can almost imagine Abbott retiring to the study to write this out longhand. And, oddly enough for a book populated entirely by polygons (with a cameo from a sphere), the book has a certain personality and character to it. Flatland wasn't mind-blowingly great, but it was certainly a pleasant diversion.


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