Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life by Robin WIlson



Why I read it: Me and numbers, we're like this (fingers crossed).

Summary: He wasn't just about Alice in Wonderland; no, Charles Dodgson, the real man behind the pseudonym lived a real life almost as exciting as the one he created for his friend Alice. And it had to do with math.

My Thoughts: I found, immediately upon picking up the book, that I never, ever want to read Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass. Sounds harsh, I know. And it probably is, me just being a generationist. Perhaps Dodgson's writing style was simply a product of the time in which he lived, the Victorian Age, but to me, it was annoying as hell. Every character that poor little Alice meets in her "adventures underground," as the original title described them, remonsrates her on some point of logic in a smarmy voice.

On the other hand, I'd gladly read more by Robin Wilson, whether he's writing about Dodgson or not. He shows us the world of the author as seen through math-colored glasses. And it turns out that Dodgson was obsessed with mathematics in its many forms. He designed his own logic problems for publication, figured out how to calculate the day of the week for any date in history in his head, and taught a generation of both willing and unwilling students everything he knew.

The book is heavy on math itself, proofs, theorems, Euclid, all that fun. Certain sections are not for the faint of heart, or the geometrically-challenged. But if you are ready to think with the logical part of your brain, to have paper and pencil ready, this book is for you.

Some passages in the book are laugh-out-loud funny. One quote from Dodgson mentions how he tried to educate the child of a friend at a dinner table, asking her to help figure out a problem, only to have her scream to her mother, "I can't do it! I can't do it!" One can almost picture the look of shock and bewildement on the face of Dodgson. Another section tells of a famous incident (which may have never happened) in which Queen Victoria, after reading Alice in Woderland, told her underlings to bring her the next book that Dodgson wrote, as she was excited to read it; that turned out to be An Elementary Treatment on Determinants.

The basic premise of the book is to expose the other side of Lewis Carroll, and the author does that trick tremendously well. I was completely unaware of how extensive his math background was, but now, so much of Alice in Wonderland makes perfect sense. So much of his life was preoccupied with math that it easily bled over to Alice and more.

I guess that now that I've read this book, I'll have to read Alice. But I swear, if the smarminess overwhelms my enjoyment, I'll end up throwing the book down a rabbit hole.

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