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Christmas 1999 brought an elegant parcel from my brother, a book thoughtfully inscribed "To Niels, a man with books about everything ... "

What a find, Robert Kaplan's enviably well-written the Nothing that is – a natural history of zero. He wears his learning lightly and presents the fruits of his knowledge and reflections with remarkable style. Linguistics, history, theology … not so much grist to his mill as companions he can turn to for explanation and examples, so that the book as a whole is shot through with insights. To take one that struck a particular chord:

[This] hankering after nothingess as a relief always rings somehow false, since it paradoxically supposes your presence enjoying your absence. Such an ill-imagined scenario lies behind many misinterpretations of Nirvana as the Bliss of Non-Being, and other upper-case abstractions. It accounts in part for the hollow sonorities of Swinburne …

A turn of dismissive phrase after my own heart! And what of this equally resonant line, ringing in the mind's ear long after the book is closed:

If we had to give the pedigree of zero as we do that of a horse, we could say: by Imagination, out of Necessity

Algebra and mathematics remain a closed book to me, but I read this one from cover to cover as if magic and augrim were at work to whisk me from iii to 219. Unfamiliar with augrim? Just another good reason for you to hasten to your local bookseller and place your order. Zero will expand your horizons.