Saturday, April 16, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Everything And More

A telling detail about David Foster Wallace is that he always referred to Everything and More - a 310-page book about the history of the mathematics of infinity - as a "booklet." The famously wordy Wallace reigns brings as much personality and verve to the subject as one could possibly hope for; he economically sketches the history of infinity, from ancient Greece through the present, with a particular emphasis on Georg Cantor, the 19th-century German mathematician who did more than anybody in history to develop our understanding of infinity. The book tries -- too hard, I would argue -- to make mathematical concepts accessible to a lay audience. For readers who did not take college-level math, no amount of analogies or examples will help you understand the most difficult concepts. I would have preferred to see Wallace just move on with his narrative, rather than waste pages attempting to explain concepts I did not have enough training to understand, not to mention the hundreds (yes, hundreds) or formulas that make for unnecessarily difficult reading.

Like a lot of Wallace's non-fiction, Everything and More has a "micro" subject and a "macro" subject. As ambitious as the life of Georg Cantor is, that's really just the micro focus, a way in to larger questions. For example, are some questions so abstract that pondering them is more maddening than rewarding? And to what extent have mathematical developments shaped larger intellectual trends, and to what extent has it been shaped by them? Wallace's thoughtful discussions of these larger subjects ultimately redeem this interesting, but difficult, book.

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