Serendipitous distractions

So the CUP Book Sale is over for another twelve months — and with changed rules after last year’s unseemly scrums, this year’s Sale was a very much more enjoyable and civilised affair. After a few pretty abstemious visits, I still came away with a dozen books in all, including to my suprise a couple that were on my wish-list from CUP books published in 2016 — George Herbert: 100 Poems (a beautiful book in form and content!) and Bart Jacobs’ Introduction to Coalgebra (for its promise of categorial interest).

Books are put on the sale shelves in a completely random order. So half the pleasure is making serendiptous finds of titles that I could not usually justify buying (even with my press author’s discount and my level of self-indulgence). At £3 for a paperback — only a few pennies more than the Saturday newspaper — how could I resist e.g. a little music handbook on The Goldberg Variations?  And I’ve been inspired by the excellent recent BBC film To Walk Invisible to start doing some re-reading of the Brontës; so The Cambridge Companion to The Brontës looks fascinating.

However, the book which I sat down with, a glass or two in hand, and devoured in a sitting later the very day I got it was G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (with a long introduction by C. P. Snow)I’m not sure that I’ve read this cover-to-cover since I was a schoolboy, and if I ever had a copy it has long since gone astray. It is a strange book in some ways, and a sad one too. But this resonated for me: “When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne.”  Perhaps not incomparable: there’s always Bach. But losing myself thinking through elegant mathematics, trying to get something really clear in my own mind, and perhaps trying to explain it as best I can to others, certainly works for me. Hardy also wrote, astringently, that “Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.” Perhaps so: but it can keep us second-rate minds happily distracted just for a while from the world’s current madness!

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