Two books to dis-recommend — February 23, 2013

Two books to dis-recommend

* Siobhan Roberts, [book: King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry]. The problem with this genre — biographers of scientists, or maybe more broadly “science literature for everyone” — is that it needs to please two masters at once: those who know the subject reasonably well and want to know about the men and women behind it, and the general public that is concerned with quirky people first and the subject matter second. This is a very, very fine line to walk, and the number of books I’ve read that do manage to walk it can be counted on one hand. Or maybe zero hands.

Roberts, sadly, is not the person we want reporting on Donald Coxeter. She wants to convince us that he singlehandedly saved geometry, and she wants us to know a bit about the man. Coxeter’s whole life was geometry, though, so Roberts had better know the subject decently well. And if she knows it, she’d better present it to a nontechnical or semi-technical audience fairly well. It’s not at all clear to me that she knew the subject well. She tries her best to make Coxeter sound interesting on his own, but he sounds either extremely boring or just not a very nice person outside of mathematics; in particular, he seems to have lived a fairly loveless marriage, and to have been not very good to his kids.

So we end up not really liking the man, finding him desperately boring, and not understanding much of what makes him a great mathematician. Roberts protests too much about his greatness, telling us over and over again how important he was without really being able to prove it. It’s too bad, because he probably was a first-rate mathematician. I picked up Coxeter’s famous [book: Introduction to Geometry] while I was reading Roberts. Hopefully I’ll like Coxeter’s book more than I liked Roberts’s book about him.

* Joshua Ferris, [book: Then We Came To The End]. I’m really disappointed to be dis-recommending Joshua Ferris’s first novel, given how much I loved his second. So the thing to say here is: go read the second and absolutely skip the first. [book: Then We Came To The End] is a boring story from a boring advertising office in Chicago toward the end of the dot-com boom, when everyone is getting laid off and the economy is in slow-motion deflation. People fill their empty lives spreading rumors about one another … and that alone would offer space for a little moral about the insanity of rumors, if it didn’t turn out that all the rumors are basically true.

I know what boring office jobs are like; I’ve worked in them. I don’t need to read a book about them, unless that book shines some sort of interesting light on the plight of office workers. It doesn’t, really at all. The office workers are either contemptible, pitiable, or noble, and I would gladly read a novel about the two noble characters. In the novel I actually read, though, there are 400 pages about bored, despicable people. There’s a bit of a redemptive love fest at the end for no good reason. The final sentence of this 400-page atrocity could have resolved a big question mark that the reader will have carried with himself or herself throughout. But that resolution would involve turning back a few pages and methodically checking off who’s at the love fest, so that we can see who’s *not* there; and By The Time I Came To The End, I was so desperate to put it down and do something enjoyable that I didn’t even care about a resolution.

So please, go read Ferris’s [book: The Unnamed]. It’s great. Let’s just pretend that that was his first novel, and speak no more about his real first one.