Jordan Ellenberg Wouldn’t Have Given the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan

I read a lot of books about mathematics as a kid, but the two that made the biggest impressions on me were Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and “The Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1982,”, probably because neither one billed itself as a book about mathematics.

As a teenager I developed ideas about Literature. My beloved English teacher Adrienne Marek, who died last year, gave me a copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to read and write about in lieu of our final exam, which I was missing in order to attend a math contest of some kind. I became obsessed and read all of Atwood’s 1970s novels, none of which I really understood, but I could feel that something was going on.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

I got my son CJ, who’s in ninth-grade American history, to read “Big Trouble,” by J. Anthony Lukas, mainly so that I could read it in tandem with him and finally finish it. It’s the entire history of the United States from the Civil War through the turn of the 20th century tied together through the story of the assassination by dynamite of a former governor of Idaho in 1905. When I took history as a kid, you never learned about any of this; they went through the Whiskey Rebellion in really fine-grained detail, they did Jackson and the Civil War, Lincoln gets killed, then suddenly it was May and there was still 150 years left to go and it was “OK, there was World War I, we won, then they had World War II, we won again, have a great summer.”

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott. I learned a lot from it about the notion of “legibility,” the way governments create formal structures that allow them to make sense of the messy world of people, then systematically mistake those formal structures for the actual world. The book teaches epistemic humility, which is a good thing for a government leader to have. In “Shape” I wrote a lot about gerrymandering, which really confronts you with the fact that “who sits in the legislature” is not such a great formal proxy for “what the people want.” Especially when the people in power don’t want it to be.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Not Janet Malcolm — the idea of being observed by her pitiless gaze is too terrifying.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

The only books I’m embarrassed not to have read are books by my friends, which I won’t name, because my friends don’t know I haven’t read their books yet.

What do you plan to read next?

I have a “to-read” shelf for this. Right now this includes “Mathematics for Human Flourishing,” by Francis Su, “We Ride Upon Sticks,” by Quan Barry, “The Ideas That Made America,” by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. But I rarely end up reading next exactly what I plan to read next.

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