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The Prospect Reading Group met this month to discuss Measuring the World, by the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting due to illness but a report was compiled by group member Caroline Ballinger, including observations from those present and a few of my own.

Measuring the World is an imagined account of the lives of two German scientific giants of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, structured around a (real? potential?) meeting between the two men later in life. The book was a literary sensation in Germany itself, and had good reviews in the UK, including in this magazine. The book was chosen following a discussion by the reading group about whether there were novels coming out of Europe as ambitious as some noteworthy examples from the US, in asking the big questions and linking the private and public spheres.

Our reading group had an interesting but rather unenthusiastic discussion about the book: interesting because of the subject matter, but unenthusiastic because of doubts about the work as a piece of writing. The most important complaint was that Kehlmann fails to make the science come alive, so that it is difficult for non-scientists to grasp the significance of the breakthroughs made by these two men. There were also questions as to whether the narrative structure

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