Tuesday, 16 July 2002

The great arc & Mr. Phillips

Listening to:

Schütz, Sinfonia Sacrae, op. 6.

Just read:

John Keay, The great arc.

This is a good example of the historical science genre exemplified by Dava Sobel's Longitude. I don't have any objection to the fact that there has been such an obvious example of publishers jumping onto a bandwagon because the material published is often reasonably interesting. Certainly, Keay's account is a worthwhile addition.

The great arc tells the story of the 19th century project to map India using accurate trigonometric methods. In particular, it is about that part of the project which aimed to cover a big arc, from the tip of the sub-continent north to the Himalayas. This particular approach to the problem meant that useful geodesic data about the shape of the Earth's curvature could also be gathered.

This is interesting enough in itself, but it turns out that the second person in charge of this project was George Everest, the man after whom Earth's highest mountain is named. Everest never saw Mt. Everest himself, and if Keay is to believed, was never particularly interested in mountains either. He and his predecessor, Lambton were both interesting characters in their own rights, and their stories add an enjoyable element of human interest to the story.

I'm becoming more and more interested in the nature of 19th century culture, society and technology, and this book is a good window on that world.

John Lanchester, Mr. Phillips.

This light novel is a reasonably entertaining read, but suffers because its main character is rather uninteresting. The novel narrates a day in the life of a middle-aged accountant who gets up on Monday and leaves for a day in town, dressed as if to go to work. Sadly, he was sacked on Friday and has nowhere to go. Instead, he wanders around London having a variety of interesting encounters. It's like an easy-language version of Ulysses, but Victor Phillips is not as interesting as Leopold Bloom. Instead of Irish politics, anti-Semitism and various discussions with all and sundry, we get lots of internal monologue on sex, as well as a few manufactured observations about life that are cute and mildly arresting, but reveal nothing about Phillips. Perhaps he is supposed to be an anonymous Everyman, but it ends up feeling like a novel populated by stereotypes. It is reliably amusing at fairly frequent intervals, so it is a pleasant read.

To read next:

Alister McGrath, In the beginning.