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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Infinity and More (or Less)....


David Foster Wallace was an amazing, prolific, creative, award-winning novelist ("Infinite Jest" his greatest popular success), who died all too early at his own hands battling depression. He also wrote some non-fiction offerings, one of which, oddly-enough, was a treatise on the history of math and the concept of infinity, for W.W.Norton's "Great Discoveries" book series.

I was looking forward to reading this 2003 take of a bright, engaging, non-mathematician writer/novelist titled "Everything And More: A Compact History of Infinity," but then came across highly critical reviews of the volume on the Web by mathematicians I much respect (the book is checkered with flaws and inaccuracies). This cooled but didn't expunge my interest in the volume. And now having read it I am amazed that this English-major/novelist, could even have tackled (...let alone in such an offbeat style) the heavy math-cerebral subject-matter surveyed in this dense 300-page book (which the author, accustomed to writing 1000-page tomes, calls a "booklet") --- so, even with mistakes-and-all, I can't help but (with a grain of salt) recommend it, as unlike any other math book you are likely to encounter; written in an informal and conversational tone about ideas that are utterly UN-informal and UN-conversational (...and the multitudinous footnotes are virtually as fascinating as the main text)! Here, a few less-negative reviews:

http://www.powells.com/review/2003_12_01.html

http://www.popmatters.com/books/reviews/e/everything-and-more.shtml

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/16/books/review/16PAPINET.html

Definitely not everyone's cup-o-tea, but still I think an intriguing, complex, quirky read by a brilliant, troubled mind from the humanities, covering material that has troubled a great many astute minds in the world of mathematics.

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