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A divine language : learning algebra, geometry, and calculus at the edge of old age
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Library Journal Review
As Wilkinson (The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger) entered his sixth decade, he began looking back at how math had always frustrated him in school and decided to do something about it. Realizing that it's never too late to learn new things, Wilkinson takes readers on a journey back to his youth where he was unable to grasp the concept of algebra and more advanced mathematics. With age comes a new understanding of how to look at mathematics in a different light, and soon he is on his way to mastering algebra, geometry, and calculus. With his smooth writing, ingenious descriptions, and analogies, this motivational book should be a welcome gift to many readers who have spent decades avoiding math because of early frustrations with learning it in school. Wilkinson explains many mathematical topics in an easy, clear, and understandable way. VERDICT Suitable for all ages, this intelligent book on finding new ways to understand things will find eager and welcoming readers.--Afaf Abu Sirhan
Publishers Weekly Review
A lifelong math-phobe takes on one hell of a homework assignment in this rollicking meditation on numbers. Journalist Wilkinson (The Ice Balloon) recaps his effort, in his 60s, to relearn on his own (except for occasional tutoring from his long-suffering mathematician niece) the math subjects that he failed in high school. Much of the book riffs on his perennial bewilderment (Why are story problems confusing? Why do they put "dx" in calculus integrals? Why are arithmetic problems arranged vertically but algebra equations horizontally?) along with his arduous overthinking and muzzy suspicion of being deceived. Wilkinson also takes study breaks to do piquant reportage on an otherworldly math genius, and a poker champion who found an actual use for math in reckoning odds. Meanwhile, he floats lyrical disquisitions on the metaphysics of math, its hard reality despite a lack of physicality, and the seemingly divine infinitude of numbers. Wilkinson's slyly entertaining prose captures both the frustrations of learning math--"I turned to Calculus Made Simple, by H. Mulholland, and only became more deeply lost and also indignant at the title"--and the rare exhilarations ("one feels engaged with larger powers") when it's mastered. Readers who have stared blankly at a sheet of equations will find this odyssey a treasure. (July)
Booklist Review
Wilkinson was never very good at math. Deep into middle age, he decides to relearn algebra, geometry, and calculus to return to the subject that defeated him and conquer it anew. The project doesn't exactly go as planned. The difficulty he encounters challenges many of his core beliefs about himself. Maybe a lifetime of experience isn't enough to do better the second time around; maybe mathematics isn't what he assumed it is. In a unique combination of memoir and intellectual spelunking, Wilkinson takes readers into the heart of math's complex mysteries and the biggest questions that arise. What unfolds is a wide-ranging exploration of identity, philosophy, faith, the history of mathematics, and the nature of the divine. Mathematics has always been a subject pointing its practitioners toward a sense of the unknown, and Wilkinson's quest becomes something akin to a spiritual pursuit. This is a deeply insightful, lyrical, and erudite work, filled with gems of wisdom and fascinating digressions, all characterized by Wilkinson's delightfully dry, self-deprecating humor. He proves it's never too late to learn something new, even if what you learn isn't what you expected, and even high-school math can blossom into surprising vistas of metaphysical and psychological significance.
Kirkus Review
Nearing his eighth decade, a New Yorker writer decides to confront his math phobia. "A lifetime doesn't seem sufficient to the task. Some things I had to learn were so challenging for me that I felt lost, bewildered, and stupid." So reflects Wilkinson, who admits that the challenge he set himself--to master or at least become comfortable with algebra, geometry, and calculus--was a kind of grudge match meant to avenge his first encounter, back in high school, with a smackdown that would "knock the smile off math's face." It turns out that math's smile is as enigmatic as Mona Lisa's. It also turns out that math has a philosophical dimension few adolescents are likely to pick up but that lends itself to mature reflection. As Wilkinson observes, math remains the same, but people change. "In Book 7 of Republic," he writes, "Plato has Socrates say that mathematicians are people who dream they are awake. I partly understand this, and I partly don't." Many other mysteries are resistant to easy solution, but as Wilkinson slogged through the material, recognizing that math is both a kind of language and religion, he appreciated more and more of its philosophical nature. He was often stumped by the problems he faced. "To be unable to fulfill an intellectual task is frustrating," he writes, but regardless, he doggedly worked his way up to calculus, there to find that, again, he sort of understood it--at least more than he thought he would. In the end, what Wilkinson learned from math and its adepts--including one brilliant mind who applied his skills not in academia but in the World Series of Poker--was not just solving problems, but a humility "forced on me by engaging in a pursuit that I appear to be unfitted for." Inspiring reading for anyone seeking to overcome intellectual defeat in any realm. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

"Wilkinson has accomplished something more moving and original, braiding his stumbling attempts to get better at math with his deepening awareness that there's an entire universe of understanding that will, in some fundamental sense, forever lie outside his reach." --Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

"There is almost no writer I admire as much as I do Alec Wilkinson. His work has enduring brilliance and humanity." --Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book

A spirited, metaphysical exploration into math's deepest mysteries and conundrums at the crux of middle age.

Decades after struggling to understand math as a boy, Alec Wilkinson decides to embark on a journey to learn it as a middle-aged man. What begins as a personal challenge--and it's challenging--soon transforms into something greater than a belabored effort to learn math. Despite his incompetence, Wilkinson encounters a universe of unexpected mysteries in his pursuit of mathematical knowledge and quickly becomes fascinated; soon, his exercise in personal growth (and torture) morphs into an intellectually expansive exploration.

In A Divine Language , Wilkinson, a contributor to The New Yorker for over forty years, journeys into the heart of the divine aspect of mathematics--its mysteries, challenges, and revelations--since antiquity. As he submits himself to the lure of deep mathematics, he takes the reader through his investigations into the subject's big questions--number theory and the creation of numbers, the debate over math's human or otherworldly origins, problems and equations that remain unsolved after centuries, the conundrum of prime numbers. Writing with warm humor and sharp observation as he traverses practical math's endless frustrations and rewards, Wilkinson provides an awe-inspiring account of an adventure from a land of strange sights. Part memoir, part metaphysical travel book, and part journey in self-improvement, A Divine Language is one man's second attempt at understanding the numbers in front of him, and the world beyond.

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