Jordan Ellenberg on the Best Books About Math, Science, and Getting Really Smart About the World

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Jordan Ellenberg Wouldn’t Have Given the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan”:

“I strongly endorse the idea of going beyond the verbal art forms traditionally marked as ‘literature,’” says the mathematician, whose new book is “Shape.” “But everybody already knows about Bob Dylan. They should have given it to Lynda Barry.”

What books are on your night stand?

J. Robert Lennon’s great new novel, “Subdivision,” which I just finished, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s new collection, “Likes,” which I just started. Judea Pearl’s “Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference,” because I was going to write about causality and the geometry of networks in “Shape,” but I ran out of room. Josh Levin’s “The Queen,” a feat of reporting somewhere between true crime and political history. Moacyr Scliar’s “The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes,” a high school favorite I was thinking I’d reread. Trollope’s “He Knew He Was Right,” which I just did reread. Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” which I have started many times. Every year I pick a reading theme, and my plan was for this to be the year of reading long books. But it’s gone slowly; also on my table is Ford Madox Ford’s four-part novel “Parade’s End,” but I’m bogged down in its high modernist style….

What’s the last great book you read?

“The Lying Lives of Adults,” by Elena Ferrante. People are kind of down on The Novel these days; Ferrante reminds you that the traditional virtues we’re taught to expect from novels (characters you experience as actual other people, a sense that something real is at stake) are not exhausted — they still work! As long as the book is great….

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Lying on the couch with knees slung over the edge, print book.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

People know David Plotz but I think not so much his amazing book “The Genius Factory,” in which he uncovers the hidden history (and complicated afterstory) of the so-called Nobel sperm bank. “The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids” is a strange and angry kids’ book by Stanley Kiesel, a teacher. I loved it as a kid. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s “I Do Not Come to You by Chance” is a very funny and very timely novel about truth and lies and the internet; I think it has a lot of readers in other countries but not so many in the United States.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

As someone who writes nonfiction about topics many people don’t know they care about, I idolize Janet Malcolm. Her sentences are so perfectly measured; each one is like a little argument. Except the ones that are like little knives. Her essay “Forty-One False Starts” is a better explanation of how to write than any book I know that actually sets out to explain how to write.

Among novelists, the ones who do the things I would have liked to do as a writer are Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey. Writers who really take a swing. I loved Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” and not only because it has very funny math scenes in it.

Internet writing — including tweeting! — is its own genre developing its own masters. Elisa Gabbert is a genius of Twitter. Tom Scocca, too. His “Towels are too thick now” is what I showed my 15-year-old to explain how a short essay is supposed to work.

Svetlana Alexievich I like a lot, if you can say “like” about someone whose books darken your day so much. I learned about her only because of the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize has its critics but actually is the most reliable way I know to find great writers you’d otherwise never encounter. Halldor Laxness, I mean, who knew? Giving a Nobel to Bob Dylan was controversial, I know. I strongly endorse the idea of going beyond the verbal art forms traditionally marked as “literature” but everybody already knows about Bob Dylan. They should have given it to Lynda Barry.

Who writes especially well about math for a general audience?

Steve Strogatz is wonderful, writing about the deepest and most abstract ideas people have worked out in a way that’s unfailingly humane; that’s not easy. For the latest research developments, Erica Klarreich consistently has great stuff in Quanta. Amir Alexander is the best on the way math history intertwines with regular history. Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” and Meredith Broussard’s “Artificial Unintelligence” are critical documents of the ways mathematical methodology can be pressed into the service of ideological goals. And of course Martin Gardner is eternal; every generation of math-loving kids discovers his playfully profound books and learns from them….

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Funny jokes and authentic, hopeless sadness….

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Indiscriminate. I read dozens of books a month. A lot of science fiction and science, at first. I read dozens of Isaac Asimov books (in both genres). What made me understand that a book could lift a cover off the world and show you how strange things were, especially normal things, were the novels of Daniel Pinkwater, especially “Lizard Music.” I first wanted to become a writer to spread the gospel of “Lizard Music” as I understood it.

I read a lot of books about mathematics as a kid, but the two that made the biggest impressions on me were Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and “The Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1982,”, probably because neither one billed itself as a book about mathematics….

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott. I learned a lot from it about the notion of “legibility,” the way governments create formal structures that allow them to make sense of the messy world of people, then systematically mistake those formal structures for the actual world. The book teaches epistemic humility, which is a good thing for a government leader to have. In “Shape” I wrote a lot about gerrymandering, which really confronts you with the fact that “who sits in the legislature” is not such a great formal proxy for “what the people want.” Especially when the people in power don’t want it to be.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Not Janet Malcolm — the idea of being observed by her pitiless gaze is too terrifying….

What do you plan to read next?

I have a “to-read” shelf for this. Right now this includes “Mathematics for Human Flourishing,” by Francis Su, “We Ride Upon Sticks,” by Quan Barry, “The Ideas That Made America,” by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. But I rarely end up reading next exactly what I plan to read next.

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