by Weston Cutter
(This first one’s another of the Missed in 2008 series—the book originally was released in November by Norton.)
Can I just go ahead and admit I’m a huge sucker for math stuff? There’s something wildly satisfying about math, specifically arithmetic, linear math: I’m a hopeless algebra junkie, and the best math provides an aesthetic click not much different from great fiction or poetry. So, all that as preamble: Robin Wilson’s Lewis Carroll in Numberland is a dynamite, knock-yr-socks-off book that’s about as satisfying a book as any I’ve read in ages—and I really specifically mean satisfying, the satisfaction that comes from being curious about an answer to something and then getting an unambiguous answer (it’s akin to the sort of satisfaction one gets on reading, say, a good mystery).
Carroll, of course, wrote the Alice books and may or may not (not at all, according to Wilson, though others’ve disagreed) have been a little too keenly interested in little Alice Lidell (for the coolest explication of that relationship, the place to go is F. Prose’s dynamite Lives of the Muses). Carroll was also, maybe less well-known, a dynamite mathematician, and spent his life at Oxford writing far, far more mathematical books than kids books.
What Mr. Wilson offers the reader in Numberland is the same playful madcapper who wrote the Alice books, but we’re given this insider-ish view of the logician behind the kiddie tale. What’s funniest and most amazing/interesting about the Alice books is how rigorously logical they are, and how many logic games and puzzles are in play therein, all of which Mr. Wilson does a fantastic job of highlighting and, when necessary, explicating.
I don’t have many friends who get amped up to read math books, and while I get that most people equate reading about math with unaesthetized dental work, I’d argue heartily that books like Lewis Carroll in Numberland—unthreatening but smart, uncondescendingly helpful—are the exact sort needed to bring the (gulp) fun of math to more people.
It’s appropriate, given that it’s Oscar weekend, that we acknowledge that most contests and prizes are garbage; how many prizes can you think of that’ve always been given to what you believe or consider to be fully worthy? VVoice‘s Pazz and Jop always misses some hugely important release, and the annual NYTimes list of ten books can’t possibly contain all the awesomeness each year offers, and do we even need to talk about National Book Awards and Pulitzers and Nobels and etc.?
However, don’t lose faith! Don’t lose hope! Graywolf, America’s absolute best publisher, has a Nonfiction prize, and the winning book’s released every spring, and if you want pure amazement, get the books that’ve won that award: Kate Braverman’s dazzler about LA started things off, Monson’s freakishly great Neck Deep won it the next year, then came T. Svoboda’s almost-shattering Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, and now Eula Biss’s No Man’s Land is this year’s champ. That, for you Sabermetricians, is that rarest thing—a perfect batting average.
I can hardly speak of this book, honestly: it’s heartrendingly amazing and so completely/complexly itself that the idea of trying to encapsulate it’s laughable. What it is, for sure, is this: it’s Eula Biss wondering about and poring over and looping back on/through ideas about race and self and home and America. I know that that process—someone at the wheel, driving into the big dark map of self/race/America—is only fully magnificent in the hands/words of a few artists, but let’s here be totally clear that Eula Biss is one of those artists, someone whose work, if made mandatory consumption for the country, would enrich and enlarge each of us to a point of fullness that’s almost scary. It’s really that good a book, seriously: buy it for yourself, and then buy ten copies, hand them out to friends, start petitions to get a national Eula Biss day (and, of course, as always: stand in slack-jawed amazement at Graywolf—their whole spring catalog’s freaky good).