Measuring the World
Daniel Kehlmann
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Buy *Measuring the World* by Daniel Kehlmann online

Measuring the World
Daniel Kehlmann
272 pages
October 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Measuring the World is a fine book by talented German author Daniel Kehlmann.

The book is a fictional account of two real men who lived in the 19th century. Both were brilliant men of science, who in the era of enlightenment set out to prove theories and use their genius to find as much out about the world and make as many discoveries as possible. Two men, totally different from each other, set out to measure the world, and Kehlmann tells their story with some whimsy but overall competently and shows their zest for life and learning with great skill and fiery quick wit.

The history of this world has been full of men whose genius has changed the world and what we know about it. Kehlmann chooses two German contemporaries, the explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Freidrich Gauss, for a glimpse into the lives of the genius who must follow his path of discovery, at whatever cost.

Each man sets out to measure the world in his own fashion. Humboldt is over the top and excitable, taking his task literally and setting off to the most remote regions of the earth to measure and experience everything he can. From being stunned by electric eels to scaling what he thinks is the highest mountain in the world, Humboldt experiences lice, cannibals, and the horrors of the jungle with a childlike fascination. Never scared, he continues to take in each and everything he sees, taking furious note in order to understand more and more about what makes the world tick.

Gauss sees no point in leaving his town and measures the world from within his powerful mathematical brain. Almost by accident during a balloon ride, Gauss realizes that all parallel lines meet and that space is curved. His mind works with such power that he comes to conclusions that will become great theories that change the world, almost like most of us decide what to have for dinner.

At the heart of the story is the journey of the two men, but donít think that it is just them happening upon great scientific discoveries. There is much sadness and despair in this novel as Gauss and Humboldt struggle to be anything other than great scientists. Humboldt seems to dislike human company, and Gauss, while in love with his first wife, is unable to express it and treats his son absolutely appallingly. Both are flawed and find life outside their own complex, intelligent minds difficult.

It is, of course, normal to see such figures portrayed with quirks, as eccentric men whose brains are so addled with mathematics, science and discoveries that they have time for nothing else. In the case of Gauss and Humboldt, it may well be true, though a few have criticized Kehlmann for his treatment of the two in that he has been given over to flights of the imagination and portrays the men as sad, pathetic, and - in the case of Gauss - very bitter.

It may be a valid criticism, but it cannot take away from the enjoyment of the novel. Kehlmann writes with a quick wit, almost too quick in that if you blink you will miss it and have to go back and read over the last sentence. He certainly brings Humboldt and Gauss to life, and showing them not just as great men but as great men first and foremost in their own lives, and the difficulties that this can bring to yourself and the humanity around you.

The book begins with the meeting of these two men. Now old and bitter, Gauss ventures to visit Humboldt, and the two men meet in simple circumstances with very little to say to one another. It is still an important event, as it is the culmination of the lifeís work of both of them. The author chooses this meeting of the two great men to take us on the journey of what their lives were about and how they got to the point of being two old eccentrics trying to understand one another.

The parallel lives of these two men meet in many ways in this book. Both end up affected by their fame and talent. Humboldt is ill and eaten up by his eminence, unable to work at all, and Gauss becomes eaten up with bitterness and, one assumes, loneliness, despite the fact he was the one out of the two men who had a family. Genius and talent are not to be taken lightly.

The messages in this book are many and often confusing. Are we supposed to be laughing at Humboldt as he drinks poison to determine its toxicity, or are we to be totally overawed by his genius and overlook his eccentric behavior?

Kehlmannís own genius is that at times we feel both humor and awe - and many other things besides - so he probably has done it quite right, after all.

There are plenty of novels out there based on real people, and many of these are well done. This book can be among those ranks, but probably for different reasons. It is a little different from the mainstream portrayals of historical characters in a fictional way. The characters here are no Anne Boleyns or other great historical figures involved in exciting hi-jinks. These are two great men whose lives, by some standards, were not exciting, yet what they achieved and what they represent was.

Comparisons to Perfume will be inevitable, both being celebrated books coming from German writers, both also being books that have changed peopleís perceptions of what post-war German writing can be. Not always dull and uninteresting but rather great tales told with wit and even some playfulness, both are worth reading as great stories but are quite different.

This is a powerful tale which will fill you with wonder. It is quick, idiosyncratic, and will leave you slightly off-kilter, but the tale of two flawed geniuses asks for it. You will participate in the adventures with Gauss and Humboldt just as you take on all that Kehlmannís genius in writing has to offer.

Kehlmann was born in 1975 In Munich. His works have been translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Vienna.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Kellie Warner, 2007

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