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Distributed for Reaktion Books


There are few truths about the modern world that are more self-evident than this: it is flat. We write on flat paper laid atop flat desks. We look at flat images on flat screens mounted on flat walls, or we press flat icons on flat phones while we navigate flat streets. Everywhere we go it seems the structures around us at one time or another had a level placed upon them to ensure they were perfectly flat. Yet such engineered planar surfaces have become so pervasive and fundamental to our lives that we barely notice their existence. In this highly original study, B. W. Higman employs a wide variety of approaches to better understand flatness, that level platform upon which the dramas of modern life have played out.

Higman looks at the ways that humans have perceived the natural world around them, moving from Flat Earth theories to abstract geometric concepts to the flatness problem of modern cosmology. Along the way he shows that we have simultaneously sought flatness in our everyday lives and also disparaged it as a featureless, empty, and monotonous quality. He discusses the ways flatness figures as a metaphor for those things or people who are boring, dull, or lacking energy or inspiration, and he shows how the construction of flat surfaces has contributed to a degradation of visual diversity. At the same time, he also shows how we have pursued flatness as an engineering ideal and how we have used it conceptually in art, music, and literature.

Written with wit and wisdom, and splendidly illustrated throughout, this book will appeal to all those who are interested in the topography of the modern world, to anyone who has ever marveled at the feel of its smooth surfaces or felt oppressed by the tyranny of its featurelessness.

264 pages | 20 color plates, 30 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2017


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Flatness is the uneven, fascinating work of a true scholar enthusiast. Clearly the essential element of Flatness is the notion of variance. I can think of few books where the discussion ranges from abstract expressionism to flat earth theories, microtopography and hunting. Perhaps most remarkably, given the obvious potential in the subject matter for sky-high geyser-spouting nonsense, the book is almost entirely free of sub-philosophical cant and cultural studies jargon. Even at his most polemical, Higman manages to write with admirable clarity and precision. . . . The book is therefore original and surprising but also reassuringly sane and straightforward. . . . There may be few readers who are willing or able to follow Higman all the way as he strides confidently across the various fields of ontology, geomorphology, physiology, theology, the philosophy of science, and discussions both of the technique of profile measurement and the meaning of musical and pictorial flatness, but those who do will find the long journey across this vast territory worthwhile.”


“Higman is a companionable writer and employs a mix of anthropological, historical, and artistic perspectives in his many apt descriptions of modern life in this survey of all things flat. The book may well stimulate others to probe further or to ask comparable questions about speed or brightness. . . . Recommended.”


"Higman has a sixth sense: he sees flat surfaces. Be they screens, furniture, walls, streets, railways, or even level playing sports fields. . . . A key premise of this book is to explore why flatness, a feature found rarely in nature, is something humans have tried hard to produce in civilization. . . . Higman shows how the world’s great flat areas, such as the Australian bush and the North American prairies, are often portrayed culturally as featureless places of unease, loneliness, even madness. . . . [Flatness] shines when linked to real-world issues such as the flat, low-lying countries facing the rise of sea levels and the toll of globalized industry on natural resources."

Geographical Magazine

“The most original and surprising book I’ve read this year. If you thought flatness equates with
dull, you were wrong. . . . Superbly researched, full of erudition, each chapter utterly surprising. . . . A really important contribution for understanding how we have transformed our planet in our own image.”

Michael Bravo, University of Cambridge

“Once you’ve started on it, you won’t be able to put it down.”

Tim Ingold, University of Aberdeen

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