Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

On a recent weekend, whilst both sitting on a train and lolling by the river, I read the short, strange novel Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott. Occasionally a novel about architecture comes along, but rarely do we get one about geometry. Flatland was written in 1884 and in addition to being an exploration of space (the Euclid kind, not the NASA kind), it also operates as an allegory for the Victorian English class system.

Flatland cover bookshelf

Though the strict adherence to perfect physical form—the more sides and uniformity of angles a member of Flatland has the higher he is in society (ie isosceles triangles are the lowest, equilateral higher, squares higher still, pentagons higher still until finally the ruling priestly class are essentially circles)—is an anticipation of the high modernists’ obsession with clean geometry, the novel also functions as a fine social critique, another target the modernists also had in their sights.

In the history of Flatland we learn about dangerous dalliances with ornamentation (paint in this case), a strict prohibition on heterodox thinking (guess what happens to a two-dimensional world when a sphere comes to town) and the near inability to imagine anything beyond the realm we inhabit. Equal parts Emil Durkheim and Le Corbusier, Flatland is a quick, engaging read that I’m still working out.

As a refresher of ninth geometry it’s a charming foray, and as kind of literary antecedent to the brand of modernism, and aesthetic patricide, that the Bauhaus boys espoused it’s first rate. So if you can’t get architecture, design and mathematics off the brain, but are angling for a charming, breezy beach read that will keep you well clear of the Robert Patterson set, consider Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland.

I wonder if any of you have read the book and would care to offer your thoughts. Particularly, how you read the appearance of the Sphere? Do you buy the kind of divinity Square confers on Sphere, or is his role merely to illuminate the limits of imagination? Where does Sphere fit into the social allegory? As a stand-in for science’s great advances and ultimate frustrations? Didn’t Square’s fate seem like a somewhat facile nod to Galileo’s imprisonment? I’d love to hear what you think.

On a side note, I recently had the chance to chat with John Windle of John Windle Antiquarian Booksellers in San Francisco about a rare, and truly fascinating, edition of Flatland that was produced in the early 1980s.

Clad in a metal case, and with an introduction by Ray Bradbury, this edition is an example of a book designed to mimic its contents, and is as close to a two-dimensional reading experience as I've ever seen. Watch this short video to learn more about an incredible publishing project, an artifact that reminded me of the possibilities of the printed word. Not that I didn't like the perma-bound library copy of Flatland I read, of course. Here's John.

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