Required Summer Reading: The Grasshopper King

August 19, 2018 at 6:34 am Leave a comment

If you’ve read How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, then you know that Jordan Ellenberg is extremely intelligent, well educated, and incredibly talented. In addition, he may be the best voice for mathematics in America today. (You may have come to the same conclusion by reading his “Do The Math” column in Slate or from any one of the articles he’s written for The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.) But if you haven’t read The Grasshopper King, a nonfiction novel that Ellenberg wrote in 2003, then you are absolutely missing out on his gifts as a pure writer. It’s the tale of Stanley Higgs, an internationally acclaimed professor of Gravinics at Chandler State University; Samuel Grapearbor, a graduate student at CSU; and the silent relationship that forms when Grapearbor is assigned to watch Higgs after he decides — for no obvious reason — to stop talking.

Coffee House Press claims that the novel is about “treachery, death, academia, marriage, mythology, history, and truly horrible poetry.” I mean, what’s not to love?

I bought The Grasshopper King because of how much I enjoyed How Not to Be Wrong, but I had no intention of enjoying it nearly as much as I did. From the first page, though, I was enthralled with Ellenberg’s style. To amalgamate several of the Amazon reviews, “this is an unusual book,” but it is beautiful because of “the finely tuned precision of the writing itself.”

This is not a math book, but occasionally Ellenberg turns a phrase that reminds you he’s a mathematician. When Grapearbor’s girlfriend claims that New York is ninety-five percent liars and snobs, he replies, “In Chandler City it’s ninety-nine. Point nine repeating.” Other times, he’ll include mathematical terms that are, in fact, completely appropriate and economical, but not altogether necessary:

a grasshopper, stirred by some unguessable impulse, heaved itself out of the drench mess, rose and fell in a perfect, inevitable parabola whose intercept was the exposed stripe of Charlie’s back

the pressure of the water made concentric circles behind my clenched-shut eyelids

the agricultural buildings were at discreet distances from one another

And, yes, I know that last one isn’t a math phrase… but I can’t help but read it as discrete distances.

If you like Pynchon or Wolfe or anything off the beaten path, then you’ll like this book. The characters are quirky and memorable, and the writing is unforgettable. I recommend spending a few hours with it during what you have left of this summer.

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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks is available from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, NCTM, Robert D. Reed Publishers, and other purveyors of exceptional literature.

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