Book Review: The Joy of x

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The Book

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, by Steven Strogatz

The Premise

Steven Strogatz, a mathematics professor at Cornell, had a math blog (On the Elements of Math) at the New York Times for a while in 2010. This is a collection of those blog posts edited into book form.

Fun with math

I read On the Elements of Math when it was new. The topics were varied and interesting,and the writing was clear. It was equally fun to review things I knew (e.g. explaining the Pythagorean theorem by drawing squares on the triangle's sides) and learn about things I hadn't encountered before (e.g. the Hilbert Hotel problem). I enjoyed it and was sorry to see it come to an end.

It has been a few years since then, and I had forgotten the specifics of the blog when I picked up The Joy of x. (It was kind of interesting just to see which parts I recalled versus what felt like new material.) The topics are still interesting, the stories are still chosen well, and the writing is still clear. I think I enjoyed the first few chapters again as much as I had when I'd read them in blog-post form.

But by the fourth or fifth chapter, my enthusiasm started to lag.

The chapters were starting to sound the same. They had essentially the same structure: identify a potential limitation of math, relate anecdote or pop culture reference, explain the problem in the story, end with a punch line. The chapters are short, so it's easy to run through the pattern several times in one sitting, and it gets repetitive quickly.

I set the book aside and read something else. When I did pick it up again, I read only a chapter at a time and found it much improved. It was like returning to the blog: only one post at a time and a break between one and the next. It's a funny way for me to read a book,1 but it worked.

The Bottom Line

It's a fun survey of mathematics by someone who obviously loves the subject. No math expertise is necessary to follow along. Read it a bit at a time, like it was originally delivered.

1: I'm a devourer, a binge-reader. I have been known to read lengthy series in a week or weekend and I read the final Harry Potter book in a single sitting the night I bought it. Reading a book in little bites is not like me.