Let’s Be Serious

I have read many bad book reviews (shame on me), but one that sticks out as exceptionally absurd was an Amazon reader review of an exercise book. “This book is pure genius!” wrote the reviewer. “I only bought it yesterday, but it’s so good I read it twice already!”

I imagine this anonymous reader so enthralled by The New Secrets of Phenomenal Fitness, or whatever it was, that they stayed up all night reading about the Secrets that would finally get them in great shape after all these years. The next day they blabbed the secrets to anyone they could find, including their office-mates, their boss, their neighbor who is 94 years old, and their uncle who got hit by a bus and has been in a coma for six months.

They stayed up the next night, too, rereading all the secrets and trying over and over to craft an Amazon.com review that was worthy of a small fraction of the book’s genius. As dawn broke, the reviewer collapsed while attempting to climb the short flight of stairs to the bathroom, concluding two days of maniacal devotion devoid of sleeping or eating. They were still clutching The Secrets to their weakened, flabby chest.

Though I mock this aspiring connoisseur, I wonder how frequently I commit the same sort of error. When I recently read Dan Ariely’s book on the patterns in humans’ irrational decisions, I thought it was so great that I talked about it to people for weeks, then read the sequel. Still, I can’t name a single habit or behavior of mine I’ve definitely altered after reflecting on the book.

Maybe I should stick to mystery novels and Sudoku – the literary equivalent of Tootsie Pops (because you want to skip to the end) and alphabet soup (because the numbers are missing). These things are not meant to be nourishing – you consume them because you like how it feels, and that’s all.

I don’t like mystery novels, though. And frequently, when I sit down to solve a Sudoku puzzle or read about chess, I get the feeling that I am wasting my time, because I could be doing something serious with this oh-so-precious brainpower I’m throwing at toy puzzles.

Somehow, I’ve gotten it into my mind that reading a math or physics book is a good, serious thing to do. But on the other hand, it’s hard. I frequently don’t understand what they’re talking about in those books, and that makes me feel bad. I compromise by reading a popular level book on math or physics.

I just read Timothy Gowers’ Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction, and I’m having a hard time saying what I got out of it. The book was well-reviewed, which I took as justification for reading it. Indeed, it is well-written. I did get enjoyment of the Sudoku / mystery novel kind. Gowers writes clearly and succinctly, with a view creating, as much as is possible, an overall view of mathematics in the reader’s mind. The book is fun.

But most of the content was stuff I already knew. I have read plenty of popular math books before, and even if this was the best there are certainly diminishing returns. There was a nice little proof that the golden ratio is irrational on pages 43-45, and I was interested in the discussion of the Poincaré disk model of hyperbolic geometry on pages 98 – 104, but for the most part, reading this book simply made me feel good. I think that’s fine, as long as I don’t deceive myself that I’m being serious while I read it.

Also, I’m having a hard time figuring out what’s so great about being serious, anyway, and why I so frequently feel an urge to do it.

One Response to “Let’s Be Serious”

  1. Woods Says:

    I think reading hard math/physics books is good for your brain in the same way that lifting heavy weights is good for your body. While I like reading pop sci books as much as the next guy, I kinda feel like it’s cheating, like you’re bench pressing an empty bar or something. Sure, it feels great to be able to throw the weight around like nothing’s there, but it’s not really doing much for you.

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