Circles: Fifty Round Trips through History, Technology, Science, Culture Summary

James Burke


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Fans of James Burke’s books and television series will not be disappointed in his book Circles: Fifty Round Trips through History, Technology, Science, Culture, another romp through history, connecting seemingly unconnected events and people. In his own distinctive style, Burke starts from some random event in the present (for example, the occasion of drinking champagne at an art exhibit) and spins back through a series of verbal, historic, or geographic connections until he finds himself precisely where he started. In the case of the champagne, this leads first to Napoleon’s Society to Encourage French Inventions, on to an expedition to the Antarctic, then to a writer named Joseph Hooker, through several more odd connections, ending with artist Georges Seurat, who was himself from Champagne, France.

In the introduction, Burke tells the reader about a paradox of history: first, the events of history are magnificently varied and unstructured; and second, historical narration often imposes a linear structure on these unstructured events. Burke’s deliberately imposes a circular structure on the chaos of history, his purpose to illustrate playfully how many different routes a narration can take.

Burke’s writing style echoes precisely his speaking voice. Which means he uses many sentence fragments starting with the word “which.” Anyone who has watched any of Burke’s television series Connections will recognize the written voice immediately. He enjoys the pun and the hyperbole. At times, the passageways he constructs between events are so tenuous that they may not seem truly passable. Nevertheless, the essays are charming and fun. This is a book best read in small chunks, in the few moments before bed, while on hold on the telephone, or during a morning subway commute. The ingenious, quirky journeys will bring delight in any setting.