Literary craze for maths and maps

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BOOKS ABOUT maps, exploration and science are set to dominate the best-seller lists into the next millennium.

After the huge commercial success of Dava Sobel's Longitude, Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem and James Cowan's historical novel A Mapmaker's Dream - which have collectively sold more than 103,000 copies in high street bookstores this year - publishers are banking on more of the same.

Next month, Granta will bring out Fergus Fleming's book Barrow's Boys - yet another cartographic extravaganza. David Ewing Duncan's The Calendar, a book published this summer which chronicles the parceling and packaging of time itself, has already sold 6,353 copies in hardback.

The new novel Number Nine, written by the structural designer Cecil Balmond, is even more minutely mathematically focused. It tells the story of a digit and its cosmic significance and is selling well so far.

It appears that faced with the portentous calendar date 2000, writers and readers are reaching for geographical and mathematical certainties. Publishing houses are capitalising on a feeling that we may have something to learn from those who once navigated their way through mermaids, narwhals, and giant squid.

Author J G Ballard detects a definite pre-millennial hunger behind the trend. "I assume that these new books about maps and the like show that we have completely lost our way at the end of the millennium. We are trying to define where we are," he said.

Fleming's factual work Barrow's Boys, the next volume to reach the bookstores, tells the story of a band of naval adventurers sent across the globe early this century to fill in some of the blanks on the map.

They were told to search for the North Pole, to verify the existence of a north-west passage, to delve into the heart of Africa and, while they were about it, to find out whether northern Australia was habitable. The Admiralty felt in the absence of war this was the best use to which their enlisted men could be put. It was a little like the modern expedient of giving the Army humanitarian missions and, in the same way, the move was not without its opponents.

"The First Secretary to the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker, was very against the drawing up of new maps," explained the author. "His view was that if they did not already have them, they were not worth having; and that Britain had done very well with its old maps anyway."

Sent out to the Sahara and the Arctic, wearing inappropriate military garb of cocked hats and frock coats, some of the naval explorers eventually became disillusioned.

After four years in the Arctic looking for a north-west passage, the explorer John Ross began to question the whole enterprise.

When he was eventually iced-up in a dead end and forced to abandon ship, he cracked. "What use was there," he asked, in exploring "an area of which perhaps the only satisfaction that can ever be derived would be that there is, on a piece of paper, a black line in stead of a blank?"

It was about as productive as drawing "the anatomy of a fly's toe". Yet the appeal of the work of those early cartographers has grown rather than diminished.

Authors of the new spate of books about exploration positively wallow in the arcane historical details and the ludicrous names of early technical impedimenta. Fleming's explorers, for example, were equipped with Henry Kater's Pendulum for Measuring Ellipticity, Englefield's Mountain Barometer and Companion, not forgetting of course Troughton's Whirling Horizon.

Ben Hill, the outgoing president of the British Cartographic Society, says exploration and map-making have always fuelled the imagination. He attributes his society's five per cent increase in membership this year in part to the success of Longitude and the way it has reminded people of the mystery of exploration.

"A map remains a way of travelling without leaving your home. It is a way of imagining," he said.

Frank Watson, the manager of Stanfords, London's leading map store, said: "Our sales have increased since Longitude. It is hard to account for it really, because map-making has generally become more homogenised."

Publishers and bookshops are not stopping to question the reason for the sales boom. The figures are enough to keep Hartley Moorhouse, marketing manager of Books Etc, happy for some time.

"There is a thirst for books which are properly researched and factual in content, whether they are novels like A Mapmaker's Dream or not," he said.

"It is possibly an intellectual reaction to the earlier spate of lightweight books about crop circles and other so-called mysteries."

J G Ballard welcomes the literary trend too, although he sees it more as a symptom of panic.

"I expect a further rush of such books. It is probably a healthy sign and better than all those books about Diana," he said. "These new books are about the very building blocks of experience. We are going back to look at the basics."

A Mapmaker's Dream

James Cowan's fictional 16th-century friar is the original armchair tourist. Mauro, a chubby monk, makes his global journey from within the safety of his Venetian cell by simply listening to the tall tales told to him by travellers. He learns of the existence of headhunters, the Islamic faith and, somewhat more dubiously, of the one- eyed, one-armed, cartwheeling Cyclopedes in a mere 151 pages.

The Calendar

David Ewing Duncan romps through the 5,000-year struggle to align the clock and the heavens, explaining why years, weeks, and months are of unequal and inconstant lengths. As anyone who has ever attempted to use a connecting train service will know, the answer is simply that the planet is run along fundamentally incompatible lines. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII realigned the calendar.


Dava Sobel was the first to make geographical calculations alluring to the masses. Obdurate Yorkshireman John Harrison carries on a 40-year obsession with constructing the perfect clock and ends up solving 18th-century sailors' longitude problems. The author had to be equally obdurate as 10 publishers rejected her manuscript before Fourth Estate published it in 1996.

Number Nine

London architect Cecil Balmond's offering subtitled The Search for the Sigma Code has a dense plot and relies on another imaginary narrator, not a monk this time, but a boy called Enjil. If you have ever wondered why any prime number greater than three will, when raised to the sixth power, leave a remainder of one when divided by nine, you will be at home with this book.

Fermat's Last Theorem

On the heels of Longitude, Fourth Estate published another surprise bestseller in 1997 with Fermat's Last Theorem, by Simon Singh. It is claimed that this mathematical detection story, which shot to number two in bestseller lists, is so exciting it makes the numerically challenged heartily jealous. Singh explains Andrew Wiles's battle to solve one of the enduring riddles of pure maths.

The Anatomist

Rather a different kind of mapping here. Federico Andahazi chronicles the search for the clitoris and the problems caused when Mateo Colombo, the most famous doctor in 16th-century Italy, finally got the co-ordinates right. The good doctor was pilloried for heresy by the Church and tossed in jail. Andahazi argues that Colombo's discovery marks the beginning of the war between the sexes.