Book Review: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
This book was quite popular a few years ago and I decided I had to read it. So I was very happy to find this book, in good condition, at a second hand book stall.

Still, it wasn’t quite a shiny as many of my other books, so it spent its days on my shelf until I forced myself to read it for the Off the Shelf challenge. Well forcing is a big word. It’s just that newer books always, always appeal more than books that have been longer on my shelf.

I must appologize for the bad summary of the book. By the time I reviewed it, I had forgotten a lot about it, as it didn’t leave much of an impression.

Measuring the World: What it was about

In Measuring the World there are two protagonists. Both could be well-known German scientists from the 19th Century. Their names sound familiar, but it is never mentioned anywhere that these people were real, neither in a pre-face nor in an acknowledgements (neither is present). While reading, I assumed they had really existed, but I could not ascertain how much of the story was real and how much made up.

Von Humboldt goes out and travels to South America with a fellow scientist, Bonpland. They stay away for years. To the outside world, Humbold makes it look like he is the main person on this expedition. This makes Bonpland resentful, as he feels his contribution is equally valid. In the end Humboldt comes home to Germany to spend the rest of his life there after a long history of travelling the world.

Meanwhile, Gauss doesn’t go very far. He stays at home, has a wife and several kids. But his first love is maths and astronomy.

At the end of the book, Humboldt and Gauss meet up.

Measuring the World: What I thought

I looked both scientists up in Wikipedia, and yes, they did exist! Von Humboldt did travel extensively and Gauss was an influential mathematician. In that case, I am really unhappy that there is nothing whatsoever in my copy of the book, to indicate that these people were real.

I enjoyed the story of Von Humboldt and his travels. Still, I prefer a real travelogue in which I can be sure that whatever is written, did happen more or less as is related. Here, I had no idea how much was made up or real.

Gauss is a bit boring, he stays mainly at home in Germany, where he tries to set up observatories for his astronomy work. In the background of his life is the Napoleonic war, in which promises that were made before the war are now worth nothing, to his dismay.

I’m really not sure why this book got the amount of attention it did a few years back. It was an OK read for me, but no more than that. And as a former scientist, I cannot stand not knowing how much of the book was made up. And where is the list of references? It could be just my Dutch edition that is missing this information, though.

Rating: 3/5

I got this book: from a second-hand book stall

I read this in: Dutch, the original language is German (Die Vermessung der Welt)

Number of pages: 289 (Dutch edition)

First published: 2005

Genre: literary fiction

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

7 Responses to Book Review: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

  1. MarthaE says:

    Oh that is such a danger waiting to write the review!
    I find I have to go back and skim the book get the feel again if I haven’t made notes along the way – which I started doing for that reason. 🙂
    This sounded rather interesting.

    • Leeswammes says:

      MarthaE – I tend to forget what I read rather quickly, especially when the book *is* forgettable! I wasn’t planning to wait with the review, then before I knew it I was 3 books further down the line and still hadn’t written it.

  2. Leslie says:

    I hadn’t heard of this one and from the description it’s exactly the type of book I’d be attracted to. Not knowing how much is real vs made up would annoy me too. I always appreciate some notes at the end.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Leslie, I wonder if other language versions do have some explanation. Dutch publishers are often quite reluctant to give any information about the writer/book. For instance, often you get no blurb at the back, especially with the more literary works, and even some information about the author is often not present.

  3. Brittney W says:

    decent read; interesting parts about Gauss

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