The best math(s) books for people who don’t read math(s) books

Rob Eastaway Author Of Maths on the Back of an Envelope: Clever Ways to (Roughly) Calculate Anything
By Rob Eastaway

The Books I Picked & Why

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon

Book cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Why this book?

This novel had me gripped from the first page. It’s a very different sort of ‘Whodunit?’ mystery, narrated by Christopher, a teenager who (we assume) has some form of Asperger’s syndrome. The book is funny and moving, and a huge hit in book groups and high school English classes. And yet…this is really a story about maths. Christopher is studying for his Maths ‘A level’ (school-leaver) exam, and he peppers the text with mathematical ideas, giving an insight into the way mathematicians think. There’s even a geometrical proof in the appendix. The author Mark Haddon was able to convey his own love of maths by putting his knowledge into the voice of an obsessive. Despite the amount of maths content, I’ve never heard anyone say that the maths put them off.


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The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure

By Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Rotraut Susanne Berner, Michael Henry Heim

Book cover of The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure

Why this book?

Among my children’s bedtime stories The Number Devil was a favourite. It’s about a boy who finds his school maths lesson dull and pointless. One night in his dreams he gets visited by the Number Devil, who introduces him to the astonishing patterns to be found in numbers. By making the lead character a maths-sceptic, the author carries the reader along so that we are all drawn into the hidden beauty of mathematics. The book has wonderful colour illustrations, which adds to its charm. Parents love it too.


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Alice in Wonderland

By Lewis Carroll, Illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer

Book cover of Alice in Wonderland

Why this book?

Everyone knows the story of Alice and Wonderland. It’s a book full of logical twists and eccentric characters, seen through the eyes of Alice who seems to be the only sensible person in a zany upside-down world. It’s a surprise to discover that this book was written by a dull Oxford University maths lecturer called Charles Dodgson. Through his alter-ego Lewis Carroll, Dodgson used the character of Alice to explore many of the playful, philosophical aspects of mathematics and logic: infinity, paradoxes, symmetry, and abstraction. Arithmetical ideas crop up all over the place, often nonsensical until you realise that numbers can be counted in different bases, and that there is more than one type of geometry for studying shapes.


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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

By Douglas Adams

Book cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Why this book?

When this story was first featured as a radio comedy series, it grabbed the imagination of a generation of teenagers and students. I was one of them. The plot revolves around Arthur Dent, a bewildered Englishman who escapes from Earth just before the planet is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic hyperspace bypass. Dent discovers that Earth was created by a supercomputer called Deep Thought, attempting to find the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything. Many ideas in the book, such as the Restaurant at the edge of the universe, have a mathematical edge to them. And when it emerges that the answer to the Ultimate Question is 42, we’re left wondering if life is really just one giant mathematical problem.


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Rocket Boys: A Memoir

By Homer Hickam

Book cover of Rocket Boys: A Memoir

Why this book?

The Rocket Boys is a heartwarming memoir about a group of boys growing up in a mining town in West Virginia in the 1950s. Inspired by Sputnik and the space race, the boys start building rockets on the edge of town. There is a delightful chapter where maths geek Quentin realises that in order to get the rockets to fly higher, the boys are going to need to study ‘calculus.’ They decide to lobby their math teacher to give them extra lessons, but he refuses, as he doesn’t think they have the aptitude. I love this reversal of the normal situation where students reject the pleas of teachers. It’s a reminder that anyone can relate to maths if we can see its purpose. 

(The book was turned into a film, and renamed October Sky, an anagram of Rocket Boys, so that it would appeal to a wider family audience.) 


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