rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Borrowed from [personal profile] dorothean.

This anthology from 1962 is a bit catch as catch can. Apparently Fadiman had done an anthology of Things Involving Math previously, which did surprisingly well, so he put together this second one, which consequently has a great many random components.

I mean, there's a section of sheet music.

It opens with a chunk of science fiction shorts which use math in some way in their plots, moves through comedic pieces, takes a brief detour into the aforementioned sheet music (the lyrics are about math), and has a sizable quantity of poetry, anecdotes, and aphorisms, all of this interspersed with occasional cartoons.

This means that you get Clarke's immortal 'The Nine Billion Names of God', along with a hunk of Lewis Carroll's not quite so immortal Sylvie and Bruno, along with Bertrand Russell giving a surprisingly numinous description of a mathematician's nightmare in which he is personally introduced to all the numbers, along with a murder mystery in which the solution is arrived at through a simplified version of Boolean algebra. Very much a curate's egg of a book-- the verse is almost uniformly terrible, and I think the cartoons may depend on concepts I do not understand (except a truly brilliant one about the meeting of parallel lines, which I will not attempt to describe). The SF stories depend a bit much on Golden Age conceptions of The Fourth Dimension (cue theremin, please).

But then you get things like the Bertrand Russell. I hadn't known he wrote an entire book of accounts of nightmares that various types of people might have. Based on this sample, it must be truly delightful. And there is, of course, an excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth, which makes me remember that I haven't reread that this year. (For those who may have missed it: the A.V. Club's recent interview with Norton Juster, still alive, still working, still made of total awesome.)

And I like the concept, the approach which says 'I will throw everything I can possibly think of that is Popular Art Associated With Mathematics into this book and we will see what happens'. People are not usually this gonzo about anthology-assembling; I wish they were. It would be interesting.

That said, I only wish the songs were, you know, any good. And apparently we did not have women in 1962, let alone people of color; this is the sort of book in which persons who are not WASP males have not been invented yet, except for occasional WASP females, who are condescended at; you know, that sort of book, the kind which will be vastly surprised in the mid-sixties when it is informed that persons demographically unlike its authors have been present all along and sometimes read things. Still, I liked rather more than half the book, which is a fair average for an anthology, and, as I said, conceptually pleasant.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
For 0 read zero. The pun is intentional.

This is an analysis of the philosophical and cultural changes surrounding the introduction of the concept of zero into Renaissance Italy, done from a comparative lit standpoint. If you think this is a book that Thrud dropped into my lap one day on her way back from the university, you are entirely correct.

It is a fascinating book, in that it is crammed full of interesting information and ideas, one half of which are impeccably supported and beautifully cited and really well phrased and the other half of which--

this will require some explanation, and I'm going to digress into my adolescent reading habits to do that. When I was a teenager, I started reading a lot of things from the New Age/esoterica section of the library, partly as a form of adolescent rebellion and partly because of the random-cool-things factor and partly because I kept stumbling across things in other books I was reading that led me in that direction. I was voracious and indiscriminate for a while-- I mean I was reading Erich von Daniken-- and I swallowed a lot of it whole because I was twelve, in the way that twelve-year-olds believe things without believing them. (This was the huge reading phase just before I discovered lesbian feminist theory.) And then, after a while, I started developing qualms. And the qualms grew to massive cynicism. I have always been the sort of person who reads everything mentioned in the bibliography of a book I really like, and I started reading older and more obscure books, shifted from New Age stuff to Renaissance magic and earlier, primary sources when I could find them. A lot of stuff on witchcraft trials. It freaked my parents out as they were okay with a kid who read fantasy but I was bringing home the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.

By late high school, I had learned a great deal about some very obscure subjects. Everything I had learned boiled down to one thing, which is I think one of the truest lessons that can be learned from reading a lot in that field, and which I not only deduced on my own but had confirmed in fictional form in those years by two authors I trust, Umberto Eco and John Crowley. Here is a main truth behind the vast majority of esoterica, both ancient and modern: if you look for a pattern in anything, you will find it. If it comes into your head that you believe in a certain correspondence of signs, a conspiracy theory, the existence of a pattern behind all this-- if you figure out a pattern and hold hard to it-- you will find evidence for it no matter where you look, evidence that convinces you when you have put it in a form you like. This is true no matter what the pattern is, whether it's the Bavarian Illuminati or that the number ten is stalking you. Humans see patterns. It is a thing we are built for. And every occultist wants to tell you that they have the true key to reality (I'll be kind: some say they have one of many), and that the thing they believe is the pattern that underlies it all, and if you understand this pattern of theirs you can do magic.

Half of this book, that I read tonight, is very good scholarship. The other half is the natural tendency of a person who has very good ideas to seek the patterns behind those ideas in everything, and insist that there are no coincidences, there are no mistakes, every piece of evidence that sounds like evidence is evidence. In short it is, and I use this term very advisedly about this particular book, magical thinking. There are some kinds of magical thinking that I think are actively encouraged by postmodernist critical methods-- I wish it were not possible to get through a comp lit program without any comparative linguistics, as the cross-linguistic pun as an actual signifier of actual significance usually crumbles before the entire concept of 'false cognate'.

In short, half of this book is totally batshit.

I recommend it highly because of both halves. )


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