Two wonderful, entirely different books

There are two wonderful but entirely different books I’d like to write about tonight. The first is Keith Devlin’s The Math Gene, which Emily kindly loaned to me. I wrote about the first half of the book here (raving about it and going on about how much I like math). The second half isn’t quite as good as the first, but it’s still very good. What I like about the book as a whole is how much it covers and with what remarkable clarity. It has a whole lot to say about math, of course, including what it is, what it’s like to be a mathematician, how we learn math, what animals know about numbers, why some people think they can’t do math. It also has a chapter explaining one aspect of math — group theory.

But that’s only part of it. It also covers current theories in linguistics and the universal structure of language. And it also covers theories about how and why language and math evolved, and how the two are connected, giving a history of human evolution along the way. It’s a lot, right? And yet I never felt he rushed or skimped on anything. I was able to follow all of it.

The book was published in 2000, and I’m curious what new research has appeared on the subject subsequently (although probably not curious enough to do the work to find out …). I can’t say whether Devlin’s argument — briefly, that our ability to do math comes from the same brain capacity that gave us language — is right or not, but what interests me most about the book is not so much the larger argument, but all the information he gives about math, linguistics, and evolution along the way to make that argument. If you are at all interested in those subjects — or if you think there’s a chance you might be — I highly recommend this book.

The other book I wanted to write about is the latest in Ella’s Absent Classic series, The Folktales of the Bezai. I’d love to rave about this book, but I feel a little badly doing it, as it’s not something widely available, and I don’t exactly want to make anybody long for a book they can’t have (although if you come visit me, I’ll let you read it). The book does promise a catalog and more information if you email Ella (the address is on her website). This is a homemade book, and you can read about the bookmaking process here, here, and here.

This edition of Ella’s fake books has a foreword by Maurice Glassoni, Ph.D., which tells of the discovery of the papers of Josephine Winterbottom, a former student of Glassoni’s who supposedly disappeared while traveling in the 1930s. However, she left behind diaries and notes from the time she spent living with an unknown tribe called the Bezai. In these papers is a long manuscript recounting stories told about a man named Anah. The Folktales of the Bezai offers a small selection of these.

The stories work together to tell the tale of a journey Anah undertook to save a peacock who has been imprisoned in a tree. The journey takes Anah to many strange places where he undergoes adventures and meets challenges and sees many strange things. It’s a charming story, told with simplicity and humor. Each segment of the story ends with a proverb of the sort you often find in folktales; in this case all of the proverbs sound borderline nonsensical and borderline profound, for example, “For he who gambles must make cheese of his own heart,” and “For he who smiles with sharp teeth is not to be easily kissed.” None of the proverbs relate in an obvious way to the preceding story, which means you can simply laugh at them and move on, or you can exercise your imagination to try to find connections between the proverb and the story. I found the latter exercise kind of fun.

What I love about the Absent Classic books is the sense of humor underlying them. In this case, I found myself laughing during the story itself, but I’m particularly fond of the foreword, which is written by a professor who apparently is quite judgmental, stuck on himself, and not interested in seeing a former student of his succeed in any way. His disdain for Winterbottom’s anthropological work is clear:

As a reader of fiction, I can see little quality in the work — it is trite, sexless, and composed around proverbs that bewilder in their nonsensicality — perhaps a problem in the translation? — and as an anthropologist, I can see even less value in the tale ….

Perhaps one day the Bezai will be discovered or a very clever fraud revealed. Who can say? In the meantime, Mr. Bishop of the Absent Classic has decided to publish a small selection for the public’s amusement, and it is my sincere hope that it may interest a few readers in the study of folktales with genuine anthropological interest.

In other words, forget about my former student and buy my book instead.

The other wonderful thing about the book is its illustrations, which, a note explains, are copies of a series of “Bezai tiles” which were based on Winterbottom’s sketches of Bezai pottery. They are little pictures of birds and plants, presumably from the landscape in which the Bezai lived.

I am now eagerly awaiting Volume 4, which, I understand, is entitled “A Guide to Lost Colors.” I can hardly wait.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Two wonderful, entirely different books

  1. peveril

    ‘The Math Gene’ (will the UK edition be called ‘The Maths Gene’, I wonder?) is a book I would love to read because I’ve long held the view that there is a link between the development of maths and language, namely my own obsession, pattern. However, it is very unusual to find an academic who is interested in both. I remember on one occasion a colleague of mine who taught pedagogical maths sitting in on one of my linguistic classes and saying at the end, but those are the same principles that I’m teaching, as if it was the most surprising thing in the world.


  2. I am an extremely proud owner of The Folktales of the Bezai, and I love what you have to say about them, Dorothy. Isn’t Ella just amazing?


  3. So if I read The Math Gene now will it help me feel not so afraid of the statistics class I have to take this fall? I had managed to push it to the back of my mind but my kind husband brought it to the fore the other day when out of the blue he told me that it wouldn’t be a big deal.

    I am envious of your Absent Classic. It sounds delightful. Ella’s creativity never ceases to amaze me.


  4. verbivore

    I’m definitely going to pick up a copy of The Math Gene for the Swiss fellow this christmas. I’ve often wondered about the link between math and language but I’d love to ask Devlin if he means any language – for example, would a Japanese or Chinese native speaker have a proficiency with language if they are also good in math. I ask because of the difference in alphabet and whether it gets processed in the same part of the brain. Did he talk about anything like that? I remember reading once that since Japanese actually uses three alphabets (two which are phonetic and then the Kanji, so ideograms) they engage different areas of the brain … a stroke or accident victim might not lose all language function depending on where the brain injury takes place. Interesting stuff!


  5. ditto litlove’s comment. Emily is truly amazing, and the work she’s doing is wonderful. Thank you for this terrific review; I love hearing about what you’re reading.


  6. I’ve had way too much caffeine today. I meant Ella, of course. Emily is amazing and wonderful too, naturally, but not in re: absent classics, but in re: ability to pass on books and book recommendations that are always good.


  7. Glad to hear you enjoyed The Math Gene (and that I’m not crazy for liking the first half of the book better than the second — although I am crazy for not keeping my mouth shut about that before you were done, because, being the impressionable person that I am, I know that if someone had said that to me, I might have decided to skip the second half of the book. Luckily, you are more tenacious than I). And The Folktales of Bezai does sound wonderful (but not like something I could EVER have done, so it’s a good thing Bloglily got her coffee and corrected that).


  8. Cam

    Confirming yours and Litlove’s comments re: Ella’s book. I was thrilled to get it and found it charming. I love the idea of spoofing not only the fairytale, but the snooty academic preface. I laughed my way through it.


  9. Ella’s book sounds great. She’s so clever–I wish I had that sort of creativity, but I don’t. Happily there are people out there who do have this ability and are willing to share! Her kids must think she’s the coolest mom.


  10. Oh wow, Ella’s book is great! That is definitely one for the keeper shelf 🙂


  11. Peveril — oh, you will definitely like this book! He talks a lot about patterns (which you have to, of course, as it’s basically what math is, which is a thing I learned from the book …). I didn’t know academics don’t often have an interest in the two — it seems like the pairing would be fruitful.

    Litlove — yes, she is! I’m extremely glad to be one of her subscribers.

    Stefanie — The Math Gene will make you hope for a good teacher, I’m guessing, as that’s the explanation for why some people have math anxiety and think they can’t do math — that they had teachers who didn’t explain the concepts behind the equations and proofs and just made them do seemingly meaningless drills. I’m sure you will do quite well in the class!

    Verbivore — I believe Devlin would say that the particular language people speak doesn’t make a difference when it comes to the math/language connection, because his point is about the elements that are common to all languages. He does talk, though, about how children in some cultures have an easier time learning numbers because their words for numbers are easier. Yes, interesting stuff!

    Bloglily — yes, we need them both around, don’t we?

    Emily — or perhaps you might have wanted to find out for yourself if you agreed about the second half? You could say I’m tenacious or you could say I’m stubborn about finishing books … but the second half was definitely worth reading, even if it didn’t live up to the first half.

    Cam — oh, that reminds me that one of the things I liked best about the book was the way Anah’s “title” kept changing — Anah the fortunate, Anah the confused, Anah the disappointed, etc. Yes, a great spoof!

    Danielle — I definitely don’t have that sort of creativity either, but I am capable of appreciating it in others — the creative types need their audiences, right? 🙂

    Iliana — oh, yes, it’s great and I’m guarding it carefully! 🙂


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