You see grids all the time. Where I am typing right now, for instance, there is a gridwork of tiles on the floor, cement blocks on the walls, in the lines on my appointment book or my wall calendar, and there must be one of pixels on my computer screen too small to see. Grids are not a natural phenomenon, but seem to be produced as a natural consequence of human activity and human thought in many different spheres. This is the point of _The Grid Book_ (MIT Press) by art historian Hannah B. Higgins. You'd expect an art historian to include plenty about paintings (especially those by Piet Mondrian), and Higgins does, but she admits she sees grids everywhere, and anyone who reads this wide-ranging book will, too. Grids evolve, Higgins says, but not in isolation: "Rather, the quality of each grid progressing to the next ties them to political, social, economic, and religious histories, each grid aligning with a different universalizing scheme." She describes her work as an "interdisciplinary adventure tale", and it works as an intellectually ambitious series of essays on ten different types of grids, some of which you may not have thought of as grids at all.
Higgins's first chapter is devoted to the simple brick, first formed of mud in something like 9000 BCE. Bricks aren't grids themselves, of course, but make grids when they are used. "Joined or placed just so, walls would become houses, irrigation canals, and security walls, the latter of which would make towns possible." Before assessing how bricks in grids make buildings which go onto city grids of streets, Higgins takes a surprising turn. A few thousand years after bricks were made, tablets were made for writing. Cuneiform was the first script, and it was pressed into brick-like tablets, the writing within a drawn grid, cells resting one on the other. Printing reinforced linear and grid-like design. The design of the letters used in each line was based on typographical principles whereby each letter was set out on a grid to make sure it had legible and esthetically-pleasing proportions. Higgins also devotes a chapter to the grids one finds in ledgers, originally with Greek and Roman slaves toting up columns of income on one side and expenses on the other. Some American colonial cities were planned out with grids, and after the Federal Land Ordinance of 1785, gridirons were literally the law of the land for cities. Such plans represent an imposition of human notions onto nature, with city planners ignoring terrain (a good example is San Francisco) for the benefits of orthogonality. Higgins shows a picture of a heavily-laden modern container ship, with the truck-sized boxes stacked and lined up just so. It is only a small jump from shipping containers to skyscrapers such as the boxy Seagram Building in New York. The grid is a part of painting history in "the veil", a screen matrix through which an artist might sight his subject, with his canvas being divided into a comparable matrix. Grids such as plaza squares show up countless times in pictures that are textbook examples of perspective, and Higgins shows how grids historically aided artistic understanding of perspective. Another grid within the arts is the musical stave, and Higgins gives a brief history of how musical notation grew into the five horizontal lines, punctuated by vertically placed notes and divisions into bars. As did so many grids Higgins describes, the stave produced unexpected advances, in this case the possibility of designating multiple pitches at once. Polyphony offended the fourteenth-century church, which also predicted that stave-enabled music would become increasingly secular, and this turned out to be true.
Higgins jumps from one grid to another, nicely illustrating the universality of her topic, and includes a huge array of subjects including being "off the grid", screens of many types, punchcards, cubism, and the World Wide Web. There is broad erudition here, but the book is suffused with an appealing intellectual playfulness. The grid might stand for imposed regularity (indeed, Higgins does not fail to touch on the grid that is the metal walls of a prison cell), but over and over she shows that grids have promoted creativity and unexpected avenues of growth. "Grids are brought to life in their use," she says, and proves it to be so in a lively set of essays.