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.