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Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown 1st Edition

30 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0609600764
ISBN-10: 0609600761
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In this slender volume, Stephen Jay Gould addresses three questions about the millennium with his typical combination of erudition, warmth, and whimsy: As a calendrical event, what is the concept of a millennium and how has its meaning shifted over time? How did the projection of Christ's 1,000-year reign become a secular measure? And when exactly will the millennium begin--January 1, 2000, or January 2, 2001?

"Our urge to know is so great, but our common errors cut so deep. You just gotta love us," he states disarmingly in the preface. "And you gotta view misguided millennial passion as a primary example of our uniqueness and our absurdity--in other words, of our humanity." Gould's own curiosity about time and calendars was triggered by a 1950 issue of Life magazine, which cut the century in half with its evaluation of what had happened and its prediction of things to come, propelling his third-grade mind to the year 2000. In Questioning the Millennium, Gould promises to make no predictions (other than "an orgy of millennial books"); court no millennial epiphanies; and put forth no theories on the collective angst that typically accompanies a century's end. Instead, he answers the millennial questions which, for him, represent the intersection of undeniable reality (i.e., natural fact) and human interpretation. Gould's questions and learned answers, weaving many historical and scientific facts, are a loving inquiry into the human need for order in a vast and teeming universe.

From Library Journal

Gould is the latest?though certainly not the last?thinker to publish his ruminations on the coming millennium. Unlike others, he spares readers the standard litany of predictions and rallying cries to embrace the future. Instead, in three essays entitled "What?," "When?," and "Why?," Gould wryly analyzes why humans are so fascinated by the year 2000. It is no great revelation that millennial passions are fueled in part by apocalyptic yearnings as well as by an innate human compulsion to measure and organize time, but, as always, Gould puts his own clever spin on these observations. Hard-core fans may be disappointed, for this book contains more religion and numerology than science. Any book by Gould will generate demand, but while this one is witty and entertaining, it is not especially illuminating. An optional purchase.
-?Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables, Fla.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 190 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; 1st edition (September 16, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609600761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609600764
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,484,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Whatever your opinion about the Millennium, this book will give you some facts to fill in the blanks of your knowledge. Gould is expert at this sort of explanation and at backing up his opinion with reason.
It's well written, enjoyable and even surprisingly heart-warming in parts.
Gould's opinion will be disappointing to all those people who feel that if something arbitrary was held true by experts in the past, we must follow it to the letter forevermore. His opinion will be refreshing to those who want to know WHY, WHAT, and WHEN and to those who would celebrate while the red-faced sticklers grumble.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 11, 1997
Format: Hardcover
I love Gould's essays. I hate Gould's self-indulgence. Gould always has something interesting to say, and this book is no exception. But he needs an editor who isn't overawed.
As in his delightful collections of essays, Gould finds the excitement in interesting tidbits and magnifies them in an interesting way. In Questioning the Millennium ("two n's," Gould reminds us with characteristic pedantry but an unnecessary apostrophe), we learn not only about the never-ending conflict over when the century ends (Gould claims to take no side, although he really does), but also about a wealth of millenarian trivia (only one n here). It's interesting trivia - little pieces of history that, as Gould notes, we always mean to look up but never do. He details apocalyptic visions of the millennium, the change from Julian to Gregorian calendars, and nature's frustrating imprecision - all worthy subjects.
Unfortunately, the inherent interest of these topics is somewhat compromised by Gould's ever-present reminders that he really, truly is an Essayist - which, to him, means someone who likes to advertise his vocabulary and seeks admiration of his ability to turn a neat phrase. Problem is, sometimes he gets a little lost in his own self-wonder. Several times, I had to look back to pick up a thread of thought I figured I must have missed - only to find it absent. I like stylish writing, but I don't like writing that calls attention to itself. Gould's writing does, and it wears thin.
But Gould nevertheless has a truly original mind, and I love how he thinks. It's worth trudging through a book that, like many of his essays, is a little too long and a little too cute to get the benefit of his wonderful thinking.
One other thing. The book ends on a beautiful note, but it's essential to build up to it. Don't skip ahead.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Simon DelMonte on April 5, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I like Gould's writing and his thinking, on the occasions he thinks. But he, like too many science essayists, gives into an urge to emote and to put aside that vaunted rationalism. Instead, he irrationally sides with popular opinion on when the new millennium began and then tells a somewhat moving but totally irrelevant story about a mentally handicapped young man who can calculate what day of the week a day came out. He also indulges, less than usual, in his dislike of religion.
As a stylist, Gould is among the best in the world of science. As a thinker, he's someone to reckon with. But as a total writer, he needs a bit of help. Still, this is a good history lesson.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover
More explanation than you will ever need of calendrics, millennium minutiae, 'day-date' calculating, etc. And a finish to the book that made me say 'Wow!'
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By David Haggith on July 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Gould is always an interesting author, whether you agree with him or not. (Not that I found anything to disagree with in this case.) If you love the idiosyncracies of human history, then you'll be intrigued by all the tidbits Gould pulls together regarding how our calendar was created (as well as how other calendars were created). His approach is light-hearted, which keeps the book from becoming a compendium of obtuse facts.
If you're interested in the interplay between humans and millennial changes, also try James Reston's THE LAST APOCALYPSE and END-TIME PROPHECIES OF THE BIBLE (a shameless plug).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Khemprof TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Jay Gould is entertaining. His work Questioning the Millennium is that questioning, but entertaining. I like Gould as an author and his essays are thought provoking.
This work is no different. Complex calendars and the idea of a millennium and how it effects us as a whole. A whole host of ideas brought to us from Gould's questioning mind.
This is a rather short work of essays, but no less provoking. As with all of Gould's essays... either you like them or despise them, idiosyncrasies and all.
Nonetheless this is entertaining.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 10, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Gould does an excellent job of showing how silly and arbritrary it is to attach importance to the year 2000 (2001?). Night will fall and day will break the same as always on the last night and first day of whichever of those years you've chosen to celebrate. (Of course, many computer systems will never be the same again!) Gould supplies many interesting facts and tidbits along the way. Although he gets a bit windy at times, I think everyone should read this short book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Cecil Bothwell VINE VOICE on November 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
When does a new millennium begin? What special meaning do we ascribe to "nice round" years with lots of zeros? Why does anyone care? This work by one of our best modern essayists swan dives into the, then, looming calendrical event and comes up smiling. To ice the cake, the illustrations are wonderful reprints of (mostly) medieval art depicting the Last Judgment, the winged devils of Hell, tragically tormented souls being dipped in brimstone and lots of other fun stuff. As his subtitle suggests ("A rationalists guide to a precisely arbitrary countdown"), Gould is after wheat and skips the chaff in this merry intellectual romp through the historical wait for Godot. The author looks at human thinking -- our love of duality (good/bad, before/after) and of numeration (numbering our days and grains of sand, counting stars in the sky and fish in the sea), coupled with the urgent necessities of planting after the flood and launching boats at high tide, to spin a thoroughly engaging disquisition. This little book reminds us that nature doesn't deal in nice round anythings in the matter of solar or lunar cycles, or day length. Hence leap-years, and even leap-seconds, to keep our human-made clocks and calendars in some sort of sync with the seasons. Gould also gently reminds we Gregorian sorts that ours is only one calendar among many -- the Jewish, Islamic and Chinese versions are still lunar instead of solar and bear no direct relation to our tabulation -- and the Mayan method was arguably more accurate. Gould also wanders into glitch-land -- the little mistakes that make us human. For example: long after BC/AD became institutionalized, the discovery that Herod died in 4 BC threw the Biblical tale out of whack until Christianity decided to allow that Jesus was born before that date ...Read more ›
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