Sunday, March 26, 2006

Dear Book-of-the-Month-Club...

This is a fan letter from someone who has never belonged to your club.

However, I grew up in a household of BOMC books. From the year I was born, 1936, right through the 40's, my mother was a subscriber. Each month a book came into our home, most of them your main monthly selections. Year by year the bookshelves filled with books.

The selections were works of true literary merit. I didn't read them, but they were as much a part of my environment as my toys, the furniture, the wallpaper. In bored moments I often sat on the floor by the bookcase and flipped pages. I'm not quite sure what I was looking for, but I must have absorbed something, because years later I sought out many of those same books and read them -- their look and feel still vivid in my mind after the passage of decades.

Some examples:

Van Wyck Brooks' two fine works on the intellectual life of New England, "The Flowering of New England" and "New England: Indian Summer."

Hendrick Willem Van Loon's "The Story of Mankind," "The Story of Art" and "Geography."

Harriete Louisa Simpson Arnow's wonderful books on the geography and history of central Tennessee, "Flowering of the Cumberland" and "Seedtime on the Cumberland."

Marjorie Rawlings' "Cross Creek" and Louise Dickinson Rich's "We Took to the Woods."

And many, many others.

Most of these books were chosen by my mother. But two books on the shelf were clearly my father's choices: Lancelot Hogben's "Mathematics for the Million" and "Science for the Citizen." Again and again I pored over these two books, examining the illustrations, and reading -- a sentence here, a sentence there.

"Mathematics for the Million" was published in 1937, by W. W. Norton, and has remained in print through dozens of printings and several editions ever since -- no small achievement for a book on mathematics. "Science for the Citizen" followed in 1938.

The titles of the books were not publishing ploys, to make the books appear accessible to the man or woman in the street. They reflected Hogben's passionate conviction that science and mathematics belong to the people.

Hogben was an English socialist and pacifist who believed that science and mathematics are grounded in practical affairs and dignify themselves in the service of democracy. The history of science, he wrote, is the history of the constructive achievements of mankind and the democratization of knowledge.

An example: The printing press brought knowledge to the masses; without the printing press there would have been little demand for eyeglasses; without eyeglasses neither telescope nor microscope would have been invented; without these the finite velocity of light, the parallax of the stars and the microorganisms that cause disease would never have been known to science.

Youthfully handsome, outspoken, eccentric and absent-minded. Hogben could only have been English -- son of a parson, educated at Cambridge University. His family imagined that he might become a missionary. Instead, he dedicated himself to science, as an academic biologist of wide-ranging interests. But it was as an popularizer of science and mathematics that he excelled.

In this, he followed in the footsteps of his heroes, Michael Faraday, John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley, brilliant 19th-century scientists with gifts for popular exposition.

Several years ago I again examined Hogben's books after a 50-year hiatus. I was astonished at how much I had absorbed sitting on the floor by the bookcase. In some ways, these books are like a road map of my life. All of the themes and interests that would later blossom are here prefigured: An interest in the deep history of ideas; a passion for the practical;a suspicion of abstractions that are not grounded in concrete experience; a gape-jawed awe at the power and beauty of mathematics; and a sense of optimism.

Hogben's books express the view that science and technology offer the opportunity of building a utopian society in which all people live constructive lives in harmony with nature and each other.

This last notion now seems sadly naive. Hogben wrote on the eve of World War II, a global cataclysm in which science and technology were harnessed to the business of killing. We have learned by grim experience that knowledge has the power for evil as well as good, and that the elegant certainies of mathematics do not apply to human moral behavior.

Nevertheless, the optimism that I learned from Hogben's books remains mostly intact, even in the face of numbing evidence to the contrary. It was reinforced by the many other fine books that came into our house each month from the BOMC, books that in a time of darkness and global violence celebrated the best and the brightest of the human spirit.

Further Reading

Mathematics for the Millions is still in print.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.