I really enjoy books, and my taste is broad and often a little strange. Plus, I pay attention to books (using resources like the bookshelf section of Rael Dornfest’s page). So it’s really unusual for someone to give me a book that’s both right up my alley and also unknown to me. This year, it happened twice. Here’s the first one.
We lived in Australia for a few years in the early ’90s, and naturally made some wonderful friends there. For Christmas this year, our friends Doug and Trisha Paice sent me a copy of The Parrot’s Theorem, by Denis Guedj. It’s a novel about the history of mathematics, and it fits my criteria for great gifts: I wouldn’t have bought it for myself, but I’m delighted to have it. I’m halfway through, and it’s a lot of fun.
If you’re looking for just a good page-turner of a novel, you can safely skip it—the story probably won’t grab you if you don’t have at least a passing interest in the history of mathematics. And there are some distinct weaknesses in the writing (which I think may be due to a sloppy translation from the original French). But it’s fantastic for me … I find the basic theme interesting, and I would love to know more about it, but I probably wouldn’t bother to slog through a serious book about the history of mathematics. But the fictional story of The Parrot’s Theorem gives the topic a narrative structure that makes it a fun and easy read.
(Additionally, through this book I was reminded of another book that I had heard of but forgotten: Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. Supposedly it is a terrific book, working better as a novel than The Parrot’s Theorem. I’ll have to add it to my wish list.)