Paperback Writer

There is always a Beatles song on loop somewhere in my brain, and today it’s “Paperback Writer.”

Great melody. Nonsensical lyrics.

But it’s fitting for today, because on the fifth anniversary of its original publication, my book Math with Bad Drawings is now out in paperback.

The book began here on this blog. Slowly, with your help, I stumbled into jokes and stories about mathematics that, one way or another, had something to say

A game that went viral.

Some silly meditations on mathematical greatness.

A bunch of jokes about probabilistic forecasting that aged so poorly that I had to change one of them entirely.

But when I turned to writing for the page, I found it different than writing for the phone screen. The production cycle for books (especially design-intensive books like mine) is measured in months, not minutes. I couldn’t really be timely. I had to strive for something closer to “timeless.”

So I wrote the enduring strangeness of Star Wars’ spherical Death Star.

I wrote about the perennial puzzle of why we buy so many lottery tickets.

And in the final chapter I wrote (fittingly enough) about the “chaos of history,” the sheer maddening unpredictability of how events unfold:

In mathematics, an “aperiodic” system may repeat itself, but does so without consistency…

We’re told that those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it, but perhaps the situation is worse than that. Maybe, no matter how many books we read and Ken Burns documentaries we watch, we are all doomed to repeat history—and still, in spite of ourselves, to be caught off-guard, recognizing the repetitions only in hindsight….

I sometimes feel I’m on the cusp of figuring it out—and then I check the news, and the world has changed again, into yet another strange and unknowable shape.

It’s strange to publish a book, and even stranger to publish it again. Aside from my cleaning up some silly errors, the manuscript hasn’t changed.

But I have.

I wrote Math with Bad Drawings as a brash American living abroad. I was a childless twentysomething, debating the nature of European electoral systems. Now I am a Midwestern father of two, debating fried food options at the State Fair.

The words in the book haven’t changed. But the world around them has. The words now refer to a different place, like a link to a website that has been totally revamped.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a famous story about a Frenchman named Menard, who sets out to write Don Quixote. Not a retelling. Not a reimagining. Just literally Don Quixote, word for word, except with a new author. And thus, a new meaning:

The contrast in styles is… striking. The archaic style of Menard… is somewhat affected. Not so the style of his precursor, who employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness.

Borges’s point is that changing the author changes the book.

Every author starts out as Cervantes, and then becomes Menard. You write a book as yourself; then you change into someone else. Now there’s this weird unfamiliar book everyone attributes to you.

Anyway, back to “Paperback Writer.” The lyric is silly because you don’t typically “write” a paperback. Hardcover editions come first.

Then again, per Borges, maybe the paperback is a new book.

Anyway, you should buy it!

One thought on “Paperback Writer

  1. Your books are generally near me, reliable friend that always have a new insight to share. Like you, I’ve changed since your words entered my home, and so what I glean from each reading has also changed. Such good work, Ben. A real gift to readers.

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