Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What I've been Reading

The weekend before last I went to buy my first Spanish-Spanish dictionary, a milestone of sorts. Of course, I immediately spoiled the effect by wandering over to the section of the store with books in English and buying three. One of them was the collection "True Tales of American Life", edited and introduced by Paul Auster, in association with National Public Radio's weekend "All Things Considered" program. In 1999, NPR asked listeners to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. Response was overwhelming, and the book collects 180 of the submitted stories in one volume.

In the U.S., the title is "I Thought my Father was God, and Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project".

It is a wonderful book, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Here is - hands down - my favorite story from the entire collection. Since it treats of the redemptive power of mathematics, how could it not be?

Mathematical Aphrodisiac

by Alex Galt

In the days when John and I used to break up all the time, we made a decision to see each other only casually. Dates were okay, but no more than once a week. We were going to lead separate lives, getting together occasionally when the spirit moved us, but without worrying about commitment.

One day at the beginning of this period, we were sitting together on the floor of John’s one-room apartment. He was knitting himself a sweater and I was reading Fermat’s Last Theorem. Every now and then, I’d interrupt his knitting to read him passages from my book.

“Did you ever hear of amicable numbers? They’re like perfect numbers, but instead of being the sum of their own divisors, they’re the sum of each other's divisors. In the Middle Ages people used to carve amicable numbers into pieces of fruit. They’d eat the first piece themselves and then feed the other one to their lover. It was a mathematical aphrodisiac. I love that – a mathematical aphrodisiac.”
John showed little interest. He doesn’t like math much. Not like I do. It was one more reason for us to be casual.

Christmas fell during this period, and since I hate to shop, I was glad to be able to cross John off my shopping list. We were too casual for presents. While I was shopping for my grandmother, however, I saw a cryptic crossword puzzle book and bought it for John. We had always worked on the cryptic crossword puzzles at the back of The Nation, and for five bucks I figured I could give it to him.

When Christmas rolled around, I handed John the book – unwrapped, very casual. He didn’t give me anything at all. I wasn’t surprised, but my feelings were a little hurt, even though I wasn’t supposed to care.
The next day, John invited me over to his apartment. “I have your Christmas present” he said. “Sorry it’s late.”

He handed me an awkwardly wrapped bundle. When I pulled it open, a rectangle of hand-knit fabric fell on my lap. I picked it up and looked at it, completely confused. One side had the number 124,155 knitted into it; the other side had 100,485. When I looked up at John again, he was barely able to contain his excitement anymore.
“They’re amicable numbers,” he said. “I wrote a computer program and let it run for twelve hours. These were the biggest ones I found, and then I double-knit them in. It’s a pot holder. I couldn’t give it to you last night because I still hadn’t figured out how to cast off. It’s kind of geeky, but I thought you might like it.”

After that Christmas, we were a lot of things, but we weren’t casual anymore. The ancient mathematical aphrodisiac had worked again.


Anonymous said...

Knitting! I'm working w/ some teachers whose 4th graders all learned to knit this year and everyone was always knitting. Boys, girls, teachers. Great story, Dg, thanks for all the careful typing. See why I love being a folklorist?


Alex said...

I'm flattered you liked my story so much (and, no, I wasn't just being vain by googling it, I was looking for the link). I heart math. And knitting, too. Your blog looks interesting. I'll poke around in here, if you don't mind.