Love and prime numbers

Mathematics and fiction have long been uncomfortable bed partners. In fact, you may be hard-pressed to think of any novels that successfully combine the two. But they do exist, and here’s the proof.

Cover of The Housekeeper and the ProfessorMy lovely new Book Discussion Scheme book club has just had its third meeting. The first book that we were allocated was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This is a great starter read for any group and we wallowed in it. But the gods looked down and thought: “well, they’re getting mighty pleased with themselves, let’s send them some maths”.

As a result our second read was The Housekeeper and the Professor and this is so not the Mills and Boon bodice ripper that you might have expected from the title.

Instead this is a restrained piece of writing translated from Japanese about love and family and mathematics and memory loss. I can honestly say that had I picked this book up in a library, I would never have taken it home. Why not? I hear you ask. It has actual algebraic formulae in it, is why. This is not a book about maths in the abstract, these characters actually do maths.

But this time we all knuckled under and read it, because we’d taken a vow at the start of our new book club to read outside our comfort zones. OK, so some of us skipped over the maths bits and some of us read the baseball sections with glazed pre-frontal lobes and a few of us did both those things. And given that it is only 180 pages long, you would be forgiven for thinking that didn’t leave much to get through. But we did it. And if you fancy being in a group that reads and talks and grows and has fun, maybe you’d be interested in joining one of the library reading groups.

And in case you actually are a maths/arts person, here are a couple of other reads to try:

  • Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco (not for the faint-hearted, a hellishly difficult read)
  • The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano (I’m betting it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs)
  • Addition – Toni Jordan (maths and the obsessive compulsive, in addition – sorry, couldn’t resist – it is funny!)

Seems like numbers are very much on my mind: this is my centennial blog, in the Year of the Snake on my Beatles Birthday. Or 26. Go do the maths!

9 thoughts on “Love and prime numbers

  1. Brendan 4 December 2013 / 11:37 am

    Flatland by Edwin Abbott is another that springs to mind. And of course The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster…

    • robertafsmith 4 December 2013 / 12:45 pm

      Always good to get new recommendations. Thanks.

    • omgitsgrantccl 4 December 2013 / 5:13 pm

      Oooh I loved The Phantom Tollbooth, haven’t read that in many years. The main thing I remember is that the protagonist at one point climbed a stairway to infinity, only to meet someone halfway up.

      • anonymousse 5 December 2013 / 4:58 pm

        I loved it too. According to this blog some time ago, the library now has an annotated version.

  2. Ronel Moore 4 December 2013 / 5:13 pm

    Impressive formula in the last paragraph, Roberta. In fact, impressive all over. Now for the next century.

    • robertafsmith 4 December 2013 / 6:19 pm

      Not sure if I’m moving forward or harking backwards Ronel – I still don’t have an e-reader!

  3. Allison Broster 6 December 2013 / 1:58 am

    I salute your Centenary, Roberta! And a birthday blog, too. What literary stamina! On the subject of technical novels, have you read Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears? There I was swimming happily along and then I hit the mechanical duck. That did for me, I have to say. About time I joined an out-of-my-comfort-zone reading group, I think. Far too easily startled.

    Btw, are my eyes playing tricks on me or are there snowflakes drifting across the website?

    • robertafsmith 6 December 2013 / 8:23 am

      Well spotted. I’d like to say that the snowflakes are only on this blog and you are supposed to work out the speed of their drift from their trajectory and the relationship to the perpendicular, but that would be me being silly! In fact these snowflakes have appeared on all the blogs and there is something irritatingly charming about them. I will have to ask IT for an explanation!

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