What I’ve Been Reading

For a few years, in the antediluvian epoch of 2019ish, I did annual posts of “books I love.”

Then I stopped.

Not that I stopped loving books. I just stopped posting about them. (I guess I got too busy writing them.)

Anyway, over at Shepherd.com I shared my three “favorite” books of the current year. For what it’s worth, I share my four-year-old’s non-exclusive notion of “favorite”. (“Blue is my favorite color. And yellow. I think rainbow is my favorite color.”)

So don’t put too much stock in the rankings, just in the books.

I’ve also been dashing off occasional reviews at Goodreads. I decline to give five-star ratings (in protest of the dubious notion that “book quality” can be quantified), but nevertheless I feed my prose into Amazon’s machine learning algorithms. Ah well.

One book I heartily recommend for math educators is Christopher J. Phillips’s New Math: A Political History. (Disclaimer: I received this book as payment for some work I did for University of Chicago Press; I love getting paid in books.) From my review:

What’s fascinating here is that, for both supporters and opponents, the New Math was not about test scores, achievement gaps, calculation abilities, or other more familiar concerns. It was about the nature of mathematical thought, and what kind of thinking was needed for a democratic society.

But I can’t help wondering if both the reformers and the anti-reformers had it all wrong. Maybe math education doesn’t need to be about the intellectual habits of a free society. Maybe math education should just be about math. Those stakes seem high enough!

I also recommend Lillian Lieber’s midcentury pop math classic The Education of T.C. Mits. (The name stands for “The Celebrated Man in the Street.”)

Lieber brims with a 20th-century optimism about mathematics as a model of democracy, an optimism that I found (1) antiquated, and (2) refreshing:

The book came out in 1942, with a jacket blurb from Albert Einstein. A few years later, science like Einstein’s would birth the atom bomb: a perfect example of the research process Lieber describes, and a mighty challenge to her optimistic interpretation of it.

My own feeling (a cynical, 21st-century feeling, I fear) is that math and science are amoral. There is no inherent goodness in the research process, no reason to think that science escapes all the pitfalls of human institutions.

And it is precisely for this reason that we need Lieber and those like her.

Another fun midcentury math popularization is The Man Who Counted, by Malba Tahan. I can’t deny a charge of Orientalism (“Tahan” is the Muslim pen-name of a non-Muslim Brazilian writer) but the prose is delightful and some of the problems are just splendid.

I haven’t written a review but I jotted down lots of quotes like this one:

If you do not know how to calculate exactly, your visions are worth nothing.

Which is immediately balanced by:

If you arrive at them through calculation alone, I disbelieve them.

Further afield, I also enjoyed:

  • Todd May’s A Decent Life (in which a philosopher attempts, unsuccessfully but nobly, to imagine a morality that covers our bases without asking too much of us)
  • Pierre Lazlo’s Citrus: A History (a chemist’s dense yet scattered history, from which I was pleased to squeeze some tasty facts and recipes)
  • Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (a challenging but eye-opening vision of something beyond the “commodity” mindset)

I should also mention Marcus du Sautoy’s new book of mathematical games, if only because the marketers decided to really run with my blurb:

Anyway, what have y’all been reading? Any hot tips for me?

9 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture: A Novel of Mathematical Obsession

    The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth

  2. Thanks for making me buy two books in one coffee break (I ordered Dear Committee Members and The Gift)! Have you ever seen Here by Richard McGuire? If not, I highly recommend it.

  3. Sarah Hart’s Once Upon a Rhyme – which will, I’m pretty sure, cause you to buy even further books.

  4. I was a “new math” student back in grade school. We used the yellow-bound, scarcely better-than-mimeograph quality books. What became clear, not too many years later, was that the ‘new math’ was perfect for preparing students to work with computers. Knowing about other bases (new math was always about base 7, I don’t know why, but I took easily to 8 and 16), logical operations, some simple set theory, and even knowing about fields and rings (which come into play when I needed to understand cryptography) was essential. I’m somewhat horrified that schools have reverted to “shopkeeper math.” (Jack and Jill have $1.78. They want to buy hamburgers and fries. How many can they buy? Answer: none.)

  5. I had a very big birthday this year and a friend bought me a maths textbook from 1823. impressive and depressing.

  6. I have been reading the Math Girls series by Hiroshi Yuki, translated by Tony Gonzalez. The first two books have been adapted into manga but the English versions are hard to come by. Maybe you can use your connections in the publishing world to get yourself the manga.

  7. *Around the World in Eighty Games* reminded me of a similar book, *A History of the World in Six Glasses.* It’s about history rather than math (or math history, for that matter), but it’s an eye-opening look at how six beverages have changed the course of history.

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