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World in the Balance

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I explained last week that I was motivated to read Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography on my Chicago trip two weeks ago because I didn’t want to take a physical book on the plane with me (which is to say, The Crowded Grave or Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, the two books I was intending to read next), so I grabbed my Kindle and turned to Agassi’s book, which I had downloaded and begun almost two years ago. On the flight to O’Hare and the return the next day, I devoured it.

One Wall Street Journal feature I will miss when delivery ends (I ceased paying, but it continues to show up at the door) is its daily book review. I don’t lack for book reviews. There’s the NYT daily and Sunday, the Sunday, Seattle Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books. Plus NPR. Yet, the WSJ manages to review books that fall through the others’ cracks. One such example is Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement. A month ago, Laura Snyder provided a review, describing the book as a

sweeping survey of the history of measurement and the search for universal and absolute standards, from ancient China up to practically yesterday.

The history of measurement, Mr. Crease makes clear, is the history of globalization and international scientific cooperation. In the past, every region had its own system of measurement. The author takes us on a whirlwind tour of ancient China, West Africa and feudal Europe, showing the confusing multiplicity of measurement methods. But within a period of only 200 years, he explains, “virtually all these systems became consolidated into one universal system of measurement, adopted by virtually every country on the planet.”

Before leaving for Chicago, I remembered Snyder’s review and downloaded World in the Balance so I would have another book ready on the Kindle in case I finished Open. Sure enough, on the return flight, I was ready for another book and began to read it as we began our descent into Seattle, continuing the next night. I got some ways into ancient China when the two books waiting for me at home, The Crowded Grave and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, beckoned and I put it aside.

They’re done now. In the meantime, two more books have jumped the queue. I’ll return to measurements soon enough, at which point I expect I’ll have more to say.

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