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Classic Novel of Social Criticism Has Scientific Relevance

A first edition of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions has been donated to the UCI Libraries by alumnus Patrick Hanratty. This 19th-century novel of social criticism endures as a classic due in part to its continuing relevance for undergraduate education in geometry and physics.

Abbott first published Flatland in 1884 under the pseudonym “A. Square.” His book is a work of scientific and mathematical fantasy that takes place in a two-dimensional world called “Flatland,” an infinite Euclidian plane inhabited by geometric figures who cannot conceive of anything beyond their own limited world.

Though a work of science fiction on the surface, Flatland is also a thinly veiled critique of the rigid patriarchal order of Victorian society: in Flatland, one’s social worth is determined by one’s shape. Figures with the most sides sit at the top of the social hierarchy. Priests, for example, are circles, while women are straight lines. The narrator, as Abbott’s pseudonym suggests, is a square. A. Square’s discovery of the third dimension (via an encounter with a sphere and subsequent trip to Spaceland) is also his discovery of the unnatural constraints of society. As he tries to communicate the restrictions of a two-dimensional world to his fellow Flatlanders, like many social and scientific progressives, he finds himself in trouble—in fact, the novel is written from jail.

During his lifetime, Abbott was best known as a teacher, theologian, and classicist. As an author he was known not for fiction, but for his scholarly and theological works. Although his bibliography includes more than 50 titles, it is Flatland for which he is best remembered. It is still read in many introductory geometry and physics classes, which is somewhat ironic given that, even though Abbott authored numerous textbooks, it is his sole work of fiction that remains in active classroom use.

The copy donated by Hanratty is crisp and clean. Its pages are “uncut,” which means it has never been read. Staff will be pleased to open the pages for our first dedicated reader. The book sits well in Special Collections, which also holds a finely printed and highly conceptual edition of the work published by San Francisco’s Arion Press in 1980.

Flatland is not the first book to be donated to the UCI Libraries by Hanratty, who in 1986 gave the library a copy of Shakespeare’s iconic 1623 “First Folio”— the most valuable single book ever acquired by the Libraries. Both Flatland and the Folio reside within the Department of Special Collections and Archives and are available for use.

For more information, contact Jackie Dooley (jmdooley@uci.edu, x44935).


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