Jen has heaps of books squirreled away in the corners of the apartment (her new shelves are due to arrive tomorrow) and a few days ago I picked up one called Mathematics for the Nonmathematician pretty much at random — something to pass the time on the subway. I ended up not finishing it, and it's probably been out of print for thirty years, but whatever — these writeups aren't meant to be proper book reviews but just a way of making sure I actually think about the stuff I read.

When I was in school I tended to prefer classes by the crusty old guys on the verge of retirement, who came up back when academia was a whole different world. They'd ramble about the subject at hand, sometimes insightfully, sometimes not so much, but always they were humans talking to other humans; that is to say, they were actually trying to communicate their ideas to us students. Younger profs who came of age in a later era, on the other hand, often seemed more intent on subverting the hegemonic phallogocentric paradigm or some such and communication was lost in the mix. A cynic might say that they deliberately try to be as opaque as possible in order to seem smarter — if you don't understand what I'm saying, it must be because my ideas are beyond your puny little brain — but I think it's more that comprehensibility is simply no longer valued and hence is not attended to, while density has come to be exalted. It's not about talking to people anymore: it's about encoding information for storage. And it sucks.

So for the first couple of chapters of Mathematics for the Nonmathematician, I was very pleased: here's a fellow, Morris Kline, who was one of the crusty old guys thirty years ago. And he's rambly and he sneaks in little dry jokes and I felt like he was trying to converse with me, and it was great. But then his overview of the development of math finished up and it was time to get to the content, and at that point the rambliness became a liability. The chapters on algebra and geometry were meandering, concentrating on a minor point for two pages and then skipping over a major one seemingly haphazardly, and I found myself just looking at pages instead of reading them, and that was pretty much that. He lost me. Not with the math, which was still quite basic, but with the approach.

It's a shame, too, because at age twenty-seven I probably know less math than I did at age eleven. I can pick it back up pretty easily — I used to sub for pre-calc classes and as long as I had 20-30 minutes to look over the chapter being covered I could recall how it all worked well enough to teach it — but it'd be nice to have it all be fresh again. When it's not just busywork, math can be absorbing fun. So was this book, for about 75 pages.

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