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April 21, 2015 / CB

Book Review: The Riddle of the Compass, by Amir D. Aczel

287802You know, it’s an interesting thing, the compass.  These days, I doubt most people would know what to do with one if they saw one.  And yet, it has irrevocably changed our world.  From opening new trade routes and blowing out the edges of known maps, to influencing our very perception of direction, the profundity of its effect can’t be overstated.  If Snake Plisskin had his way, and the world went dark tomorrow, every ship’s captain the world over would lose a GPS system based on the compass.  After a moment of panic, though, he or she could return to this essential tool (which they all still carry) and bring the ship home.  It’s a fascinating dichotomy, but one left largely unexamined and unremarked upon these days.

Of course, reflecting on this sort of thing is just what Aczel has built his career on.  This book, like the majority of his work, is compact and eminently readable.  It is a light, populist history which explores an idea so essential to Western culture that it has been taken for granted.  Indeed, in his preface, the author says “the compass was therefore the most important technological invention since the wheel…[it was] the first instrument with a pointer, allowing a person to visualize a measurement” (p. xii).  Now, I have no doubt that there are those who would argue that claim, but if it’s even close to true, it’s monumental.  Consider all the tools you use to measure abstractions during the day.  Think of your watch, a ruler, the speedometer in your car…they are all finite ways of marking out space and time which owe at least a partial allegiance to the compass.  For something that pivotal, you would think the historical record would be more complete.  Of course, it’s probably just this sort of mystery which energizes a historian like Aczel.

There’s little debate that the compass first appeared in China roughly 2,000 years ago, but they were using it for interior design, not navigation.  Direction is a major player in feng shui, and when the Chinese discovered that carved pieces of lodestone would orient north-south, the tool was essentially born.  What is not so clear, however, is how that property was first modified for navigation.  The Italian town of Amalfi claims the credit through the 14th century fortunate son Flavio Gioia, but both the claim and the man are clouded by a doubtful fog.  Not least among the questions–indeed, it may be the essential riddle of the compass–is figuring out how the compass made its way to Italy.  Was Marco Polo involved?  Or was it a case of simultaneous, albeit later, invention?

In the course of trying to unravel these questions, Aczel casts his historical net wide.  He touches on civilizations all around the Mediterranean (and beyond), pulling in the likes of Dante, Sir Francis Drake, and Odysseus.  His discussion covers astronomy, navigation, theology, and conquest.  He even manages some first person narration, telling of his own childhood aboard ship, as well as a trip to the Amalfi archives.   Yet, for all this variety, he manages to construct an easy narrative voice which tells the story almost faster than I would have liked.  I ended the book hungry for more detail, more solutions, all the while enjoying the fact that some things will forever remain a mystery.

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