August 28, 2008


The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. By Edwin A. Abbott. Introduction and notes by Ian Stewart. Basic Books. $17.95.

Alice in Wonderland. By Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Mary Engelbreit. HarperFestival. $9.99.

Dragon Keepers #1: The Dragon in the Sock Drawer. By Kate Klimo. Random House. $14.99.

      It was Dr. Seuss who wrote of “the thinks you can think” and “the places you’ll go,” but Edwin A. Abbott and Lewis Carroll were taking readers to strange and wonderful realms long before the good doctor ever penned his not-so-nonsensical-after-all rhymes. Abbott’s Flatland, first published in 1884, remains the best short introduction ever written to issues of mathematical multidimensionality and the implications of going beyond three dimensions. The novella is also a book of social commentary, examining the mores of Abbott’s own time and finding them wanting in areas ranging from the general stultification of thinking to the specific treatment of women. Ian Stewart – who has extended Abbott’s concept by writing a book called Flatterland – produced The Annotated Flatland in 2002, but it has only now become available in a paperback edition that, one hopes, will rekindle the always-simmering popularity of Abbott’s book and make Stewart’s gloss more widely available. For Stewart does add a lot to Abbott – not to the basic story, which remains well-nigh perfect in its simplicity, but to an understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts as well as the societal implications of what Abbott wrote. Abbott postulates a land where all is two-dimensional (hence his book’s title); he then has the narrator, A. Square, visited by a sphere – which of course appears to A. Square as a circle. It is only when the sphere lifts A. Square out of Flatland through a direction that A. Square could never have imagined that A. Square begins to understand multidimensionality. Square and sphere visit one-dimensional and no-dimensional worlds; but when A. Square suggests, quite reasonably, that there must be worlds beyond that of three dimensions, the sphere scoffs at him, showing the limitations of his own thinking. Eventually A. Square is imprisoned in Flatland for his heretical notions about other dimensions. Stewart’s book includes Abbott’s original in larger type, set within boxes; Stewart’s own comments are in the margins, with some Abbott pages getting no comments at all and others receiving such long notes that (in one case) seven lines of Abbott are all that appear on two full pages of text. Stewart does go a bit overboard in his commentary at times, but of course there is no need to read more than one wishes to; Abbott’s book stands quite well on its own. If, however, you do want to understand more about Abbott’s discussion of polygons, read about the constraints of physics in Flatland, or find out in what way Flatland may be commenting on the Sepoy Mutiny, Stewart is available as a knowing guide. Flatland itself remains an astonishment. The Annotated Flatland is an expansion that does not make the original any better but may make elements of it more understandable to the modern reader.

      There is, rather surprisingly, no tinkering at all with another Victorian classic in the Mary Engelbreit’s Classic Library edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Engelbreit is a well-known illustrator, her sentimental and rather overdone renderings gracing all manner of books and gift items. But she is quite delightfully restrained here, simply contributing a cover of Alice and the Cheshire Cat (making both of them look somewhat younger, and the cat less mystifyingly threatening, than in Carroll’s writing), then producing a White Rabbit figure to introduce each chapter and an illumination for each chapter’s first letter. A gold-colored necklace from which a White Rabbit charm hangs is included with the book. But these are the only vestiges of the sentimentality for which Engelbreit is known: aside from them, this is Carroll’s work, unembellished and unannotated. In truth, readers ages 8-12 – the book’s target audience – could probably use some guidance to Carroll’s satire of Victorian pretensions, nursery songs and judicial oddities; but that is not what this edition is all about. Instead, it makes Alice in Wonderland reader-friendly, presenting the book as a relatively small hardcover that is easy to carry, with type large enough to be easy to read, and without illustrations (the classic ones by Sir John Tenniel are quite marvelous, but would make the edition considerably longer and would not go well with Engelbreit’s far more simplistic style). Young fans of Engelbreit who are unfamiliar with Alice’s adventures may well be drawn to them through this edition – and that would be a very good thing indeed.

      Kate Klimo is no Carroll or Abbott, but she too has come up with a kind of alternative-dimension story for the same ages targeted by the Engelbreit Alice. The first title in a planned series called Dragon Keepers, Klimo’s The Dragon in the Sock Drawer is one of those cute fairy-tale-like stories…but it is also neatly connected with our everyday 21st-century world. For example, when a baby dragon hatches from an apparently ordinary rock, 10-year-old cousins Daisy and Jesse have to figure out what to feed it. So they take their problem to…Google. That doesn’t work, of course (in real life, you can get an answer by asking Google what to feed your baby dragon – but it refers to a lizard called a bearded dragon). In any case, the cousins’ unsuccessful search sets them to using the computer for further exploration, and that brings them to a site called (which also exists in the real world – to promote this very book). It turns out that the cousins became Dragon Keepers when their dragon hatched, and must now keep the dragon safe from the centuries-old villain Saint George, who stays alive by drinking dragon blood. There are enough twists and turns in the basic plot to keep young readers well entertained, and Klimo keeps finding amusing ways to play with the old fairy tales. For instance, when the cousins have their inevitable confrontation with Saint George, Jesse realizes that the dragon’s real name must not be known to the villain, so he calls the dragon Esmeralda “after Cinderella’s ugly stepsister,” even though the stepsisters are really named Anastasia and Drizella. Later, after a daring rescue of the dragon from Saint George, Jesse and Daisy have to contend with the appetite that Emmy (her actual name; short for Emerald) has developed for fine Italian shoes. The Dragon in the Sock Drawer is great, silly fun, with a climax that makes it abundantly clear that the whole book is a shaggy dog story (even if young readers won’t necessarily know what that is). The ending also sets the scene neatly for the second book in the series – which, based on this first one, will have quite a lot to live up to.

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