Reading the World: When We Cease to Understand the World

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When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction. 

Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.

At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.


“A gripping meditation on knowledge and hubris. . . . [Labatut] casts the flickering light of gothic fiction on 20th-century science. In five free-floating vignettes, he illuminates the kinship of knowledge and destruction, brilliance and madness. . . . His prose is masterfully paced and vividly rendered in Adrian Nathan West’s magnetic translation.” —Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times Book Review

When We Cease to Understand the World fuses fact and fiction to turn the modern history of physics into a gripping narrative of obsessed scientists, world-changing discoveries, and the ultimate results—often quite dark—of our drive to understand the fundamental workings of the universe.” —John Williams, The New York Times Book Review Podcast

“[When We Cease to Understand the World] is as compact and potent as a capsule of cyanide, a poison whose origin story takes up much of the opening chapter—the first of many looping forays into the wonders and horrors unleashed by science in the past few centuries. . . . It is a meditation in prose that bears a familial relationship to the work of W. G. Sebald or Olga Tokarczuk: a sequence of accounts that skew biographical but also venture into the terrain of imagination. . . . The stories in this book nest inside one another, their points of contact with reality almost impossible to fully determine.” —Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

Benjamín Labatut was born in Rotterdam in 1980 and grew up in The Hague, Buenos Aires, and Lima. He published two award-winning works of fiction prior to When We Cease to Understand the World, which is his first book to be translated into English. Labatut lives with his family in Santiago, Chile. 

Adrian Nathan West is a novelist, essayist, and translator living in Spain. His criticism has appeared in the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications. He has translated books from German, Catalan, and Spanish, including Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Country Doctor (NYRB Classics) and Pere Gimferrer (NYRB Poets).

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When We Cease to Understand the World Cover Image
By Benjamin Labatut, Adrian Nathan West (Translated by)
$17.95
ISBN: 9781681375663
Availability: Available - We'll have it for you ASAP!
Published: New York Review Books - September 28th, 2021

Event date: 
Wednesday, June 1, 2022 - 7:00pm to 8:00pm
Event address: 
304 S. Elm St.
Greensboro, NC 27401