Book Report: Realm of Numbers by Isaac Asimov (1959, 1967)

Book coverI have tried to read this book many times in the years past; the first time, actually, was when I needed something portable to stick in my pocket so I could read it at the airport while waiting for my sainted mother’s flight to arrive. That, my friends, was six or eight years ago.

So I stuck it in my pocket again recently and, since I’m running behind on my reading this year (I might crack forty books this year if I buckle down), I resolved to finish it. And I did.

But I bogged down a bit in the same spot as last time.

The first part of the book is as much history as mathematics: Asimov explores ancient civilizations and how they began enumerating and coming up with the basic concepts such as 0, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. So far, so good. Not only is this basic mathematics, but it’s history and narrative in nature. Then, when he gets to square roots, exponents, and higher order concepts, the history that makes the first half of it so easy and enjoyable to read evaporates, and he focuses on proofs and formulae. As such, the juice that made the book succulent dries up. Yeah, I learned some things, but some of it rolled right over me, and I was content to let it do so.

But at 140 pages, it can be a quick enough read once you give yourself permission to skim the formulae at the end. It’s also a bit of a gateway for me to acutely wanting to refresh my math skills. So if you’re into that sort of thing, give it a whirl. There are a couple of others in the line, Realm of Algebra and Realm of Measure, that I’ll keep my eye out for, but you don’t find a lot of Asimov at book sales and garage sales. Sadly, people have turned from informed and informative books like this to reality television and Twilight fan fiction tie-ups.

Books mentioned in this review: