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Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea

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Contrary to popular belief fostered in countless school classrooms the world over, Christopher Columbus did not discover that the earth was round. The idea of a spherical world had been widely accepted in educated circles from as early as the fourth century b.c. Yet, bizarrely, it was not until the supposedly more rational nineteenth century that the notion of a flat earth really took hold. Even more bizarrely, it persists to this day, despite Apollo missions and widely publicized pictures of the decidedly spherical Earth from space.

            Based on a range of original sources, Garwood’s history of flat-Earth beliefs---from the Babylonians to the present day---raises issues central to the history and philosophy of science, its relationship to religion and the making of human knowledge about the natural world. Flat Earth is the first definitive study of one of history’s most notorious and persistent ideas, and it evokes all the intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual turmoil of the modern age. Ranging from ancient Greece, through Victorian England, to modern-day America, this is a story that encompasses religion, science, and pseudoscience, as well as a spectacular array of people and places. Where else could eccentric aristocrats, fundamentalist preachers, and conspiracy theorists appear alongside Copernicus, Newton, and NASA, except in an account of such a legendary misconception?

Thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating, Flat Earth is social and intellectual history at its best.

436 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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Christine Garwood

6 books2 followers

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5 stars
36 (20%)
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70 (39%)
3 stars
56 (31%)
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10 (5%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 44 reviews
Profile Image for Sharon A..
Author 1 book23 followers
November 15, 2017
Excellent guide through the surprisingly complex idea of the flat earth

This is the first book I’ve ever read on the Flat Earth idea and it’s a winner - engrossing, so readable, coherent, and enlightening. It’s critical in these days of conspiracy mongering and allegations of “fake news” (real and imagined) that we see the forest for the trees. Otherwise, we’re doomed. I feel so much more well-informed on the subject as a student of science & society. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Eric Dubay.
Author 13 books154 followers
September 26, 2020
This book is like Kaitlyn Jenner writing "The History of Being a Straight Hetero Man." Christine Garwood still believes herself to be living on a tilting, wobbling, spinning space ball careening through an infinite vacuum, but decided to attempt writing a book about the history of our Flat Earth. The book does not take an objective tone or angle and it is assumed from beginning to end that the reader, just like the author, 100% believes the doctrine of heliocentrism, and it is never questioned anywhere throughout. The only redeeming quality of the book for someone like myself who knows for a fact the Earth is level and stationary, is some of the minutia regarding the Bedford Level experiments and other historical tidbits difficult to find mention of anywhere in published media. If you're looking for a truly good book about the history of Flat Earth, try Gerrard Hickson's "Kings Dethroned." Or better yet, my new book "Flatlantis," covers the entire true history of our Flat Earth and subsequent adoption (and recent destruction) of the heliocentric globe model.
Profile Image for أميرة بوسجيرة.
298 reviews199 followers
June 6, 2022
الحمدُ لله الذي هدانا وفضّلنا على كثيرٍ ممّن خلق تفضيلًا

مربكةٌ، محيّرة ومزعجة جدّا القراءة عن أناسٍ كرّسوا حياتهم للدّفاع عن قضية خاسرة بكلّ هذه الحرارة والالتزام

-- مع ذلك، الكاتبة أسرفت كثيرا في الاستطراد بتفاصيل لا معنى لها، وبالتكرار الذي يبدو أنه له غايةً واضحة

وطبعًا، لولا متطلّبات الوظيفة لما أكملت 10 صفحات من هذا الكتاب

أستحقّ قراءاتٍ جميلة تنسيني هذا "الهراء"
Profile Image for Marcus Shepherd.
5 reviews25 followers
December 20, 2011
How do you know the Earth is round? No, really. Because you saw a picture? Because you own a globe? What evidence could you throw up right now to prove the globularity of the ground you stand on?

Looking through some of the other reviews, it seems like people focus on the proponents of the Flat Earth model with pity and scorn.
"At times you want to find the people it talks about and slap some sense into them, at others you just feel sorry for them. Seeing the deliberate ignorance people impose on themselves is both amusing, and terribly frightening."

"It is finishes with an assessment of this belief across the years, comparing with initially entwined Creationist movement but remarking that a Flat Earth is simply too easy to disprove and therefore has been abandoned by almost the staunchest of Christian fundamentalists."

But this book is really about so much more, and the epilogue demonstrates that. It's not about proving the Earth is round. It's about knowledge and what you believe in. It's about the development of a society that has shifted their faith from priests to physicists, and accepts what is told them. Likely, this book serves as a litmus test. If you're more scientificly-minded, you focus on the proponents of Flat Earth theory and marvel at how obtuse they are. If you're more philosophically-minded, you revel in the tale of Leo Ferrari and the question of how we accept things as facts. (Presumably, if you're flat earth-minded, you thought the book was great unless it was too critical.)

I do not think, however, that this book was very well-written. It was obnoxiously repetitive and unbearably dull. Sometimes, definitions for the same concepts were given in each chapter, in case – one presumes – that the reader was too bored reading one chapter and skipped to the next. In an effort to be comprehensive, it over-covers the issues. Reading through the first half is a never-ending cycle of pamphlet printing and responding to criticism. Over and over again, the reader is treated to the same actions with minor changes. If I could do anything with this book, I'd give it to Bill Bryson and have him rewrite it. It would be a tenth of the length and ten times more interesting and humorous. (It kills me to see the humor hiding beneath the surface of this book, so close to coming out but buried under the dull, academic style.)

In short, this book was somewhat interesting, but really not interesting enough to pick up for fun.

Quibbles: I assume this topic was not limited to the Anglo world. What about Flat Earth belief in other parts of the world? This book glosses over them completely. Also: the author very rarely mentions how much influence the Flat Earth societies, especially the early ones, had in terms of members. It felt like there were three people in all England for 50 years.
Profile Image for Tommy Carlson.
156 reviews4 followers
February 24, 2015
So, here's the first book conforming to my 2015 "no books by white men" resolution, Flat Earth by Christine Garwood. It examines fairly recent beliefs in an actual flat Earth. It's an amusing read, in places, but drags most of the time.

It starts out with a couple chapters explaining why we as a culture thought folks back in Columbus' time even thought that the world was flat. (Actually, I didn't think they thought that, nor I suspect do many people today.) Turns out it was evil secularists, trying to drive a wedge between religion and science! No, really, that's what the first couple chapters are about. It's awkward, as if she has an axe to grind, but just a wee axe, not deserving of a longer treatment.

Then we get into some fairly modern-day believers and their activities. The characters are, at times, colorful. Often, they're just misguided fools, spewing the same bad arguments over and over. They're often lauded at the time for their debate skills, despite their lack of good arguments. Obviously, there are parallels with creationists today. These parallels are mentioned but not really analyzed in any way.

Eventually, the book works its way through several people. It ends with a summary that criticizes secularists a bit more, while somewhat lauding the Flat Earth people for no apparent reason. There's a mention of the parallels to creationism again, but no analysis, again.

And therein lies the problem with the book. It just doesn't know what it wants to be. Reconciling science and religion is a juicy topic, but isn't treated in depth here, nor even-handedly. Parallels with creationism are ripe with possibilities, but the text never examines these other than to merely mention them. They're no evolution of Flat Earth theories, just the same ones offered over and over.

All that leaves is a book about wacky people who believe wacky things. Frankly, that could be enough, given sufficient wackiness. These folks lack that level of wackiness. They're not boring, mind you. (Well, some are simply boring people.) They're just not interesting enough to carry the book by themselves.

Overall, it's not a bad read, but nor is it really a good read. It was good enough that I read it all the way through, yet I would be lying if I claimed I wasn't looking forward to the end just a bit. I want to give it two and a half stars.
Profile Image for Karen.
378 reviews
August 14, 2011
This is a bit long winded at times, and bogs down in retoric, but after all how many ways can you sustain a Flat Earth theory. What is amazing that against all odds (science in particular) people can still believe, and justify thier belief. It always good to look at both sides of any story, how else do we make decisions.
Profile Image for Darby.
15 reviews
December 15, 2017
In the Middle Ages people believed that the earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round, not because as many as one per cent of us could give the physical reasons for so quaint a belief, but because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true, and that everything that is magical, improbable, extraordinary, gigantic, microscopic, heartless, or outrageous is scientific.
- George Bernard Shaw
Profile Image for Hazel.
39 reviews
September 10, 2011
Amazing expose on the history of flat earth belief, and the complexities involved. At times you want to find the people it talks about and slap some sense into them, at others you just feel sorry for them. Seeing the deliberate ignorance people impose on themselves is both amusing, and terribly frightening.
Profile Image for Katie.
111 reviews1 follower
July 28, 2010
This was an interesting book about the history of the flat earth idea, mainly starting in the early 1800's up to today. It is well written and poses some interesting ideas at the end about why people believe in crazy ideas.
Profile Image for Stephie Williams.
382 reviews36 followers
June 12, 2014
Fairly interesting, except it kind of seemed like same thing over and over again. Only the names and times seemed to change
Profile Image for kaɪl zezotaaarski.
14 reviews1 follower
December 26, 2018
Garwood shares detailed stories of key people throughout the relatively short history of Flat Earth noise-making. She makes pertinent points throughout, and at the end of the day presents an eye opening read that makes these believers, who are so maligned by society, feel like actual, relatable human beings (though definitely eccentric ones).

Although well researched, it was sometimes my impression that the author didn't read many of her own chapters, which was evidenced by the repetition of facts as if each time they were new information, as well as the seeming inclusion of every detail she must have come across. It was often a slog, and that is the reason for the three stars.

That said, Chapters 8, 9 and the epilogue are my favorites. Chapter 8 was such a refreshing departure from the rest of the book, focusing on the Flat Earth Society in Canada that was founded for very different reasons than the others. It was fun to read after dragging myself through a couple hundred years' worth of stories in which all of this was taken very seriously (perhaps an indication that it felt like a slog in part because of my feelings about the subject).
Chapter 9 continued by following a more contemporary believer in a Flat Earth whom the author succeeded in portraying as sympathetic, in my reading of it.

And the epilogue, as they tend to, brought everything full circle, but also drew parallels between Flat Earth believers and the much more terrifyingly effective Creationists, as well as questioning our blind acceptance of facts as presented by experts and authorities, and inducing some terror via public opinion polls and what they say about where society is headed.

It's a fascinating topic and the author has done a great job locating all the pieces of the narrative, at least from a Western perspective (no reference to similar ideas being propagated elsewhere). A future release would benefit from major trims, though.
Profile Image for Arukiyomi.
382 reviews71 followers
January 31, 2021
Just before Christmas, this popped through the door completely anonymously. Tearing it open, it sounded like just the thing to while away a day or so reading over the break. I finished it on the second day.

Do not take my quick read as any evidence for how well written this novel is. In fact, I finished it despite Christine Garwood’s best effort to document the history of the modern flat earth movement from the early 19th century to somewhere around 2007.

This span of time is one of the book’s many weaknesses. Garwood unfortunately ends when flat earth theories were just getting warmed up on the Interwebs. Any book with “Flat Earth” in the title and Mark Sargent and his companions missing from the content just isn’t doing the subject any justice… at least as far as humour goes.

However, the main issue with Flat Earth is that although Garwood rightly considers that modern belief in a flat earth “raises issues central to … the uses and abuses of information” (p. 35) she then fails to actually give this any real consideration. This is a mighty failure.

The fact that people believe that the earth is flat in the 21st century is really of no consequence to any of us who don’t. It’s in no way a threat. But what is potentially threatening to all of us is how people come to believe in a flat earth and maintain those beliefs. That Garwood does not deal with this issue more substantially than in a 12-page epilogue is a serious shortcoming.

Instead, the book rambles through the usual suspects beginning with a long section on Rowbotham through mandatory coverage of the Bedford Levels controversy leading inevitably to Lady Blount. It then makes a brief foray over the Atlantic to spend a moment on Voliva before settling back in the UK for the dawn of the space age.

At this point, just when I thought it was going to get interesting, Garwood starts to let unfettered access to the correspondence of Samuel Shenton cloud her judgement. Maybe to justify some fee she had to pay for access, she feels the need to detail individual correspondence that is at best banal and at worst repetitively banal.

Sadly, this continues when she shifts the focus back to North America where correspondence of Leo Ferrari and finally Charles Johnson bludgeon your interest to death. By the end of the book, you’ve stopped caring. Here’s a sample:

During 1973 further positive developments were to transpire. Nowlan had finally finished his first novel, Various Persons Named Kevin O’Brien, and disappeared on a working holiday to Campobello Island to continue the research for his official history. Leo, meanwhile, went camping in California where he hoped to further his medieval studeies and promote the society’s work. More promising still, he was not alone on the trip. Earlier that year he had met a new girlfriend, and together that summer they clocked up approximately 12,000 miles in Ferrari’s 1966 Chevelle. While Ferrari was enjoying ‘wine, sunshine and the best of company’ in California, he joked on a postcard to Nowlan that he was … (continues for 94 pages)
p. 303

That the book was in need of a better editor is made more evident by an appendix that contains a list of “Scriptural ‘Proofs'” for a flat earth cosmology from the Old Testament. Quite why Garwood felt this was necessary is not obvious. The Bible and the influence of those who interpret it literally is mentioned fairly consistently, but not enough is made of how it is an inability to correctly apply hermeneutics (to all texts, not just biblical ones) that is really at issue here.

The most apt quote of all is the only one I will assuredly take from my reading of this work. in the 19th century, Charles Kettle was responding to correspondence with a flat earth believer who said that as no one had seen the earth as a globe, how could anyone say it existed. Exasperated by the bad logic that often accompanies debates on the topic, he replied

You have not seen your own brains. Do you believe you have any?

Having read Flat Earth, I was just waiting to complete this review before sending it on to a close relative of mine who believes the earth is flat. However, just yesterday, I received an email from her admitting to being my benefactor. I was somewhat surprised at this seeing as Garwood clearly is of the opinion that belief in a flat earth is an “apparent absurdity” (p. 35). I’m going to have to find someone else to pass it on to then!

For more reviews and the 1001 Books Spreadsheet, visit http://arukiyomi.com
40 reviews
September 13, 2022
Interesting book, probably only worth 3.5 stars. Christine Garwood has certainly researched this topic and a little repetitious it may be, but then this is the history of a quite awkward group of dissimilar people with varied reasons behind their beliefs.
The first part mainly concerns 'Parallax' or Samuel Rowbotham - who is a very interesting and involving character. This is certainly the best part of the book with his fights with Alfred Wallace. Of the many others he involved in his theories (even though we are never quite sure if he believed in his theorieshimself) or if this was just another money making venture.
After this we get many chapters of those that followed after him, who unfortunately for the author, are no where near as interesting - except for a Canadian group of academics who had another agenda altogether. This chapter is definitely worth a read, if only to see their ambitions and why a flat earth theory was used.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out that flat earth belief is far younger than you imagine and for more reasons than you would believe.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
400 reviews1 follower
April 30, 2020
This starts long ago in history, when by no means everyone believed the world was flat, and finally comes close to the present with those who insist, through biblical literalism or some other route, that the globe is a hoax and the moon landing a worse one. The richest seam is in the Victorian period, when the notion of the professional scientist was still only half-formed. There is much measuring of canals to prove convexity or not; and even more libel. My favourite flat earther - or zetetic - is Lady Blount, anti both vivisection and vaccination, a composer of music ('The earth not a globe' performed at the Crystal Palace by Godfrey's military band'), the author of what sound like truly terrible poems and a novel, and the inventor of a cure for rheumatism as well as a flying machine. Her energy at least was remarkable, as was the trait shared by all her kind, an utterly implacable refusal to be discouraged or to waver in their belief.
Profile Image for Giuliano.
182 reviews
March 5, 2021
What an undertaking. Christine Garwood retraces the history of the Flat Earth doctrine over the last 500 or so years. She goes in deeply and discusses the main themes and players, often drawing on primary sources, including letters written by or to prominent flat earth proponents. The book was written in 2007 and so skips over YouTube and other various media used by flat earth propagandists.
All the same it makes for an interesting read. The dychotomy of science and religion is one of the main themes, as is religious fundamentalism. But the book does not make fun of or berate Flat Earthers. It actually conveys some good points from the Flat Earth camp as to how science is taught in schools and how easily accepted some theories are.
This was a fascinating read and I learned a lot about where this theory comes from, its history and main arguments. This book gave me some good context to can draw when discussing the topic with flat Earthers.
Profile Image for Mario Sailer.
78 reviews9 followers
May 14, 2019
Good book that depicts some (the major) Flat Earth proponents in modern age starting in the 19th century. What makes the book interesting is how this theory was advocated for despite overwhelming evidence (increasing over time) that the earth is a globe and what motivated the proponents of the theory. If you abstract from the the topic, the Flat Earth, to others, not so easily refutable ones, the same patterns of advocacy become visible.
While the book provides good insight in the history of the Flat Earth theory, I found it awkward to read at times, because of too much detail.
33 reviews1 follower
May 13, 2022
I really enjoyed this book. The amount of research that went into this would be huge. For me I actually think that Christine is a flat earther. If most people would just look up they will learn that we are not spinning at 1000mph and you cannot see any curvature. The curvature tools on the internet can easily be debunked at the beach with your bare eyes... Space, Mars, planets.. It's all lies... Thanks NASA for all the great movies though but I know.
Profile Image for Shiloh.
Author 8 books17 followers
November 16, 2017
Very very thorough and fair look at the various people and groups who have insisted that the Earth is flat. Occasionally the organization is a bit rough, but Garwood had a lot of material to cover, so that's understandable.
May 7, 2019
Interesting reading about the history of the stupid belief that the earth is flat. The truth is that it is interesting reading, but what surprises me the most is the fact that in the 21st century there are a lot of people that still believe in such a nonsense.
Profile Image for Nick Sanders.
467 reviews5 followers
July 28, 2019
Well researched. Very well researched. But a tad on the boringly so side. Interesting nonetheless, because of the apparently still alluring subject.
Profile Image for Andrew.
76 reviews
November 4, 2022
An interesting idea which could use some reorganization to create a more compelling and connected narrative.
56 reviews
December 8, 2022
The more things change the more we prove our own ignorance. I’m amazed we ever made it out of the cave. A good depressing read.
1 review
July 31, 2018
This book is more about the lives of the flat earth supporters than the actual idea of a flat earth.
Profile Image for Renate.
163 reviews13 followers
April 25, 2021
The earth is a sphere. It spins on its own axis whilst revolving around the sun. Men had worked that out as far back as 2500 years ago. We know that. But there have been others, who have deliberately refuted those facts and thought or believed otherwise.

If you see yourself as someone with an open mind, this book will surely test you and make you grit your teeth as you work your way through this very detailed, thorough account of every charlatan, fraudster, crackpot, zealot and attention seeker who campaigned against the "conspiracy theory" of a spherical earth and Newton's laws and insisted that the earth is flat.

The mistake I made in going into this, was to expect this book to be a humorous 'pop science' kind of book. It soon became clear that it wasn't. It reads more like an academic thesis. The author had done some detailed research and was evidently making an earnest attempt to create a complete record of the Flat Earth zetetists, as some of them called themselves. The end result is quite long winded. It digresses quite a bit into irrelevant details of the lives of some of these 'characters' and I did question many times whether reading this was time worth spending.

But the benefit that I got out of it was the recognition of some of the charlatans in particular present day politicians et. al. The anti-establishment approach, persecution narrative, conspiracy theories, distortion and selective use of facts, all sounded depressingly familiar. For example, a lot of space is devoted to a dubious character who called himself "Parallax" and how his anti-establishment approach could win over people for whom "a little learning is a dangerous thing" (Alexander Pope, 1711). It has to be said though that it appears that not many were won over. The movement seemed to have caught on more for its entertainment value than its message.

I also found it interesting how in Victorian times, people responded to the rapid development in technology with magazines, societies, evening lectures that supported the sharing of knowledge within the population at large. It probably was also no co-incidence that developments in society, the relative affordability of creating and spreading pamphlets, coupled with a general interest in the wider population in learning, gave these charlatans an opportunity to have a stab at fame and fortune by spreading their humbug. Reminds one of the explosion of social media today.

In the epilogue the author makes a good summary of how bogus ideas can get traction within a population. At the end there is reference to a startling statistic that, according to a survey, potentially 23% of adult Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth! (Not sure that I could believe that.)

And finally, I'd like to note that the quote on the cover that says "Highly entertaining and often hilarious...", attributed to Jerry Brotton came in for some criticism and raised a giggle at our book club. Most in the group experienced it otherwise.
64 reviews
August 2, 2012
When i saw this book at the library I found myself fascinated by the concept. It took me a little bit to get in the swing of it... but it was certainly worth it.

Christine Garwood has done an immaculate job in her research. The book's subject matter lies somewhere between religion and science, following the life of the theory by the people who tried to spread the word. I also learnt a whole lot about the history of science and how people think!

My favourite part was the chapter about the Flat Earth Society (Canada). It was funny and quirky and a little bit tragic. The people involved in that particular part of Flat Earth history were jokers and drinkers and creative thinkers. They used the society to try and challenge people to think critically. Actually... they were 70's hipsters.

Which is basically the whole point of the book for me.

Thinkthis book has furthered my desire to think critically about every aspect of my life that I can. I realised that I can't explain most of my fundamental beliefs to anyone: What proof do I have that the Earth is round? How could I explain it to someone? o.O I'm working that out as I go. Thinking critically and realising that we can't explain why the Earth is round, that we can't demean people for their fundamental beliefs and realising that not everyone understands the way the world we might are all really important things for me and this book really brought that out for me!

Profile Image for Susan Wight.
216 reviews
September 9, 2014
The Idea of a spherical world had been widely accepted in educated circles from as early as the fourth century BC. Yet, bizarrely, it was not until the supposedly more rational nineteenth century that the notion of the flat earth really took hold. This book traces the history of the Flat Earth idea.
It has taken me quite a long time to read this book as it is fascinating in parts but the very nature of denialist arguments render it repetitive as different manifestations of the Flat Earth Society have repeated earlier experiments and ‘proofs’.
The most interesting section was on the Canadian Flat Earth Society founded as a joke but one with philosophical overtones. The founders were pointing out the importance of critical thinking and the importance of questioning authority. We can laugh at genuine flat earthers but how many of us can actually explain a proof of the globular earth without just pointing to a model globe or photos taken from space? Flat Earthers argue that the ‘common sense’ of our own eyes tells us the earth is flat and that the Bible (and their own branch of ‘science’) backs them up.
I must reread the children’s book The Librarian Who Measured the Earth
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