My 10 favorite books

That’s 10, not ten — because there are twelve, which is still 10. Confused? Just pick the right base, of course. So I guess they’re still my 10 favorite books.

Anyway, if you look at my profile (the link is near the upper-right corner of this blog), you will see the current list of my favorite books, in no particular order:

  • A Pattern Language
  • Getting Things Done
  • Foundation
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach
  • How Children Fail
  • The Odyssey
  • The Nine Tailors
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Excursions in Calculus

The list may change tomorrow, but here are a few words about my selections. Again remember that the order is mysteriously random:

  1. The 1216-page A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, by Christopher Alexander, is indeed about towns, buildings, and construction, as the subtitle claims, but it’s not just an architecture book or a city-planning book. This 1977 tome is all about the ways for us to design and think about the spaces we live in, written with a bit of a linguistic flavor as the title suggests. It truly helped me see the world differently, at least in terms of human interaction with our environment. Read it!
  2. I’ve already written twice before — in both 2006 and 2007 — about Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen (2001). See those links for more info concerning my thoughts on this valuable book.
  3. The classic Foundation series by Isaac Asimov is, well, a classic. But it’s so much more than that. It has had a major influence on science fiction fans, especially those (like me) who value historical points of view as well. Originally a trilogy formed out of eight short stories written from 1942 to 1950, it developed into a cluster of short stories and novels that altogether painted a sweeping view of future history. Though the series is not an example of elegantly written literature, its serviceably transparent style makes it worth reading multiple times, as I have done. The interaction between Asimov’s invented science of psychohistory and the discovery of chaos theory (which came after Asimov wrote the initial theory) is particularly intriguing for those who are interested in math. Try reading the series in the order suggested by the author.
  4. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, was a tour-de-force when published as a book in 1962 and subsequently as a movie released in 1971. It’s essential reading for two very different reasons: primarily because it is not written in English but in Nadsat, an invented teenage creole that combines Russian words with Cockney English; secondarily because it raises so many interesting questions about personal responsibility and decision-making.
  5. Mathematician Charles Dodgson’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872), written (as everyone knows) under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, are not merely children’s novels but are masterpieces of language, logic, and a smidgen of mathematics. These two books are, of course, deeply embedded in our culture in so many ways, and are special favorites for those of us who love words and numbers. I especially recommend Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice.
  6. The most recent book on this list is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel by Mark Haddon published in 2003. While the reader is initially attracted by the fact that the chapters are numbered 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13 — and by the fact that the protagonist is a budding mathematician, the real interest in this novel is the author’s success in creating a first-person narrator with Asperger’s Syndrome.
  7. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid is my #1 favorite book, so why is it listed seventh? This 1979 masterpiece by Douglas Hofstadter weaves together mathematics, computer science, art, and music around a central theme of recursion and self-reference. I’ve read it and reread it often, and have taught from it six or seven times. Gödel, Escher, Bach is an amazing book that has changed the way I think about so many things!
  8. In 1964, when I was halfway through high school and only beginning to think that I might become a teacher, I read John Holt’s newly written work, How Children Fail. Although the title sounds negative, it presages today’s emphasis on error analysis and differentiated instruction. I have read it several times, not only in high school and college but also after I began teaching, and I always recommend it to beginning teachers.
  9. By far the oldest book on this list is Homer’s Odyssey, definitely one of my top 10 — preferably in the original Greek but otherwise in the Robert Fitzgerald translation. I had the joy of reading much of this epic poem in Greek in eleventh grade and all of it in English in twelfth grade. I know, some people prefer the Iliad, but I’m definitely in the Odyssey camp.
  10. The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers, may or may not be my favorite mystery, but I guess it must be since it’s the only mystery on this list. Sayers’s elegant writing leads most people to place this 1934 novel in the literature category rather than the mystery category, and the lovely mathematics behind bell-ringing adds an extra charm for certain readers.
  11. I couldn’t leave out Tolkien’s famous 1937–1949 trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve probably read eight or nine times. Everyone knows it, so there’s not much for me to say here other than that it’s the epitome of creating an imaginary garden with real toads in it. And I also surprised myself by loving the movie versions as well.
  12. Finally, last but certainly not least, comes the best math book in the world. Despite its title, Excursions in Calculus: An Interplay of the Continuous and the Discrete by Robert M. Young (1992), is not about calculus — at least most of it isn’t. The subtitle is more informative. This elegantly written work explores a wide variety of math problems in areas such as iteration, number theory, combinatorics, and algebra. Although there is plenty of exposition of the text, the real meat of the book comes in the hundreds of carefully chosen problems, many of which lead the reader to explore fresh topics in some depth. The catch? The “solutions” in the back of the book don’t actually provide any solutions; they merely tell the reader where to find the solutions. You will need an exceptionally well-equipped library in order to follow the links. Since I rarely am in such a library when I work through the problems, I have to cope with them on my own. I’ve twice used parts of Excursions in Calculus as a text for independent study by advanced high-school students; it works well for that purpose, but it also richly repays study by any math enthusiast at or above the first-year calculus level.

Categories: Books