Books for Christmas: Millennium - Dennis the menace gets the time wrong

David Barrett
Saturday 27 November 1999 00:02
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BLAME IT all on Dennis the Little: Dionysus Exiguus, who in 525 AD was asked by Pope John I to work out when Easter should be, and went on to invent AD. His miscalculations mean that we should actually have celebrated the Millennium in 1997, or even earlier. He's also to blame for the confusion of whether the century and Millennium change at the end of this year, or next. But then Archbishop Ussher of Armagh is also partly responsible for the Fundamentalists' Pre-Millennial Tension. If the world was created in 4004 BC (specifically on Sunday, 23 October), then we must now be on the eve of the seventh millennium.

Today's prophets of doom are only the latest in a long line, as a string of excellent books by Damian Thompson, Marina Benjamin, Eugen Weber and others have shown. But what about Time itself? How did we develop our complicated systems of measuring it, and why, and what does this show about ourselves? Alexander Waugh's Time (Headline pounds 18.99) - apparently the 150th book from the Waugh family - is a popular account of where our units of time (seconds, minutes, decades, centuries) came from. It contains lots of chatty historical anecdotes, though the absence of any notes or a bibliography makes it impossible to follow them up, or even to be certain of their provenance.

More thorough is E G Richards's Mapping Time: the calendar and its history (Oxford, pounds 7.99), a solid historical and scientific exploration of the development of time measurement and calendars (and, in passing, writing and numbers, without which they would not have been possible). If you should happen to want to convert a date from one calendar to another, or find out what day of the week any date was or will be, there's a whole section of complex alogorithms to do that.

There's similar material in the second part of the massive Oxford Companion to the Year by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (Oxford, pounds 35), along with explanations of the Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i and many other calendars. The first part provides 658 pages of fascinating historical and folkloric information about every day of the year (including the three occasions when there was a February 30), the seasons and months, and the major festivals and feast days. This is a huge, glorious compendium, which will be the standard reference for years to come.

For a totally different approach, Jay Griffiths's Pip Pip: a sideways look at time (Flamingo, pounds 12.99) is a wonderful piece of polemic against everything that's wrong with the way we deal with time today; the Gradgrindian utilitarianism of clock-watching and "Time Is Money". Griffiths inveighs against clock time rather than natural time, and linear time rather than cyclical time, with a delightfully humorous eye for anthropological detail. Pip Pip is a simultaneously breathless and leisurely rant against the careless march of progress, including the dehumanisation of that most natural event at the end of our personal time: death. Pertinent to the End of Time, she pours well-deserved scorn on plans to build a biblical theme park "with a virtual- reality simulation of apocalypse" at Meggido - the present-day Armageddon.

At first sight, Conversations About the End of Time (Allen Lane, pounds 14.99) appears in stern contrast to Griffiths's free-flowing polemic. Translated from a French original, this consists of interviews with semiotician Umberto Eco, zoologist Stephen Jay Gould, playwright Jean-Claude Carriere and historian Jean Delumeau, covering everything from the Big Bang to millennial expectations. As in Griffiths, the discussions are wide-ranging; Gould and Eco show, by ignoring them, just how restrictive academic boundaries can be.

Going back to Dionysus, part of his problem was that the concept of zero didn't exist in the Christian West when he did his calculations. After reading Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is: a natural history of zero (Allen Lane, pounds 12.99) you'll wonder how we ever managed without it. Alhough we lost zero until we picked it up from the Arabs in the Middle Ages, the Babylonians had the concept, and the Greeks were using the symbol "0" in 331 BC. If you're feeling brave, then tackle the mathematical chapters; if not, there's plenty of fascinating historical detail in the first half.

Ormond Edwards, in When Was Anno Domini? (Floris Books, pounds 6.99), re-examines the dating of Herod's death, usually given as 4BC. Unlike everyone else, Edwards reckons we've got the dating system right after all. Jesus was born, he says, on 25th December 1 BC, and so the Year 2000 really is the start of the third Millennium. At least Dennis the Little would have been pleased.

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