Simon Winchester

The invisible boundaries of everyday life

Maxim Samson investigates cultural or imaginary demarcations around the world, including the International Date Line, America’s Bible Belt and the Jewish eruvim

A chapel in Bible Belt Mississippi [Getty Images]

Norman Shrapnel, the wise and kindly parliamentary correspondent of the Guardian back in the day when it was a readable newspaper, tried never to give a book a bad review. He liked to say that anyone who had taken the time and trouble to write about anything at length deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt, and so he generally dipped his reviewer’s pen in honey rather than vinegar.

I must say that on picking up Maxim Samson’s Invisible Lines, I felt quite otherwise. I wanted at first (an important caveat) to paint my laptop’s entire screen with vitriol. Within two pages I’d begun to loathe the author’s use of ‘foreground’ as a verb (technically he is not wholly wrong, just wanting in style). The idler in me wondered why he needed to boast that he is a long-distance runner, obsessively collects flags and is a master-student at Duolingo. But what really got my goat was not Samson’s fault but that of his publisher Profile for failing to equip his book with an index. Samson could perhaps have insisted; but he is a first-time author, and publishers can be intimidating beasts, always grumbling about money.

In America’s Bible Belt, millions still cleave to the belief that the Earth is only 4,000 years old and angels exist

This, though, was just my initial reaction, and I totally changed my mind when I stumbling across one unfamiliar small word halfway through the book. The word is eruv (its plural, being Hebrew, eruvim), and it was Samson’s explanation of it as a type-example of an unseen frontier that turned Invisible Lines for me into a triumph, a volume of great good sense and imagination which brims with fascinations.

An eruv sounds small, though is anything but. It is both an actual thing and a fiendishly clever concept.

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