Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: Everything and More

Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ is the first (and thus far only) book by David Foster Wallace I have read. I thought that book was great. I loved the writing style, and the level of mathematical detail fit my background rather well. The book (or booklet, as Wallace insists) traces the development of maths treatment of infinity throughout western history. It includes metaphyscial/philosophical discussions (starting with the Greeks, of course). It focuses on math rather than on the biography of any individual. Importantly, it provides motivation for how particular ideas in math developed, and the intellectual context in which well known advances occurred. The first half or so of the book (say, up through Newton and Leibniz and the development of calculus) is more lucid than the second part. But, this is a consequence both of the relatively lower level of abstraction of the material, my own familiarity with these concepts and Wallace's ability to more successfully impose a grand narrative onto the events. Any one who has spent time pondering Zeon's Paradoxes should definitly give this book a shot.

Wallace's style is quit distinct. It is slyly informal, with the author's voice directly addressing the reader. It is also interrupted by a multitude of parentheticals and foot notes--devices which Wallace uses masterfully to inform and entertain. I can see how some would find this style jarring and difficult to get through. I can also see how the books level of detail could be overwhelming. Wallace claims that all that is required is some basic college level math background, but I think it is best targeted to a slightly higher level reader.

Some reviews for technical audiences focused on a number of errors Wallace makes in his presentation. I am uncertain how much this detracts--after all, this isn't my field, so I am very much an interested layman (and thus the target audience). I found it to be an amazing, literary depiction of important and abstract ideas--the type of communication that I'd love to read more of.

I agree with this review by Chad Orzel (the excerpt he gives pretty much sums up the writing style. If you can't handle that, then don't bother with the book, but if you are intrigued by this style and interested in how some of the most difficult problems and paradoxes dating back to the Greeks are handled, then give the book a read).

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