Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Book Review: Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

Wallace, David Foster.  (2003)  Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.   New York : W.W. Norton.

Max, D.T.  (2012)  Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: a biography of David Foster Wallace.  New York : Viking.

I started Everything and More several years ago but put it down after a while, annoyed by the author's arrogance and frequenct wrong headedness. However, the review of Wallace's biography, by DT Max, in a recent issue of the NY Review of Books lead me to reconsider.

Max's biography is very readable and admirably balanced, given DFW's character flaws: at first, Wallace comes across as absurdly immature and not infrequently something of a con artist. But this impression softens considerably with the publication of his novel Infinite Jest in 1995.

On the other hand Everything and More reads like a quick crash course in the philosophy and mathematics of the concept of infinity. Everything and More gets off to a bad start on the first page by telling the reader that Cantor was the most important mathematician of the 19th Century, Boltzmann the most important mathematical physicist, and Godel the most important mathematician of the 20th Century. This somewhat unexpected choice was to help support the author's thesis relating madness and mathematics. Had he chosen, say, Riemann, Maxwell and von Neumann the thesis would have been less convincing. In fact the book is filled with opinionated remarks that are not at all convincing. For example, on page 52 "Rarely do math classes ever tell us ... where a particular formula comes from". There are in fact many instances in which the author shows his displeasure with the way math is taught at the college level, but as we learn from his biographer, DFW avoided math classes when he was at Amherst because he was afraid it would hurt his GPA. In simpler terms, Wallace is too new to most of this material to distinguish forest and trees, and I would not recommend the book except for the sake of curiosity.

On the other hand, Wallace is easily the most talked about writer of his generation, and the biography by DT Max is a good place to learn about who he was and maybe why the literary world thought so highly of him.

Submitted by Bob Kariotis

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