The best books on mathematics for the general reader

David Acheson Author Of The Wonder Book of Geometry: A Mathematical Story
By David Acheson

Who am I?

I am an applied mathematician at Oxford University, and author of the bestseller 1089 and All That, which has now been translated into 13 languages. In 1992 I discovered a strange mathematical theorem – loosely related to the Indian Rope Trick - which eventually featured on BBC television. My books and public lectures are now aimed at bringing mainstream mathematics to the general public in new and exciting ways.

I wrote...

The Wonder Book of Geometry: A Mathematical Story

By David Acheson,

Book cover of The Wonder Book of Geometry: A Mathematical Story

What is my book about?

What is the quickest route to mathematics at its best? 

In this book, I try to show how geometry can provide the answer, by drawing on its rich history, quirky personalities, and practical applications. Throughout, I highlight elegant methods of deduction and the most surprising results, and claim that, in this way, anyone can begin to enjoy some of the wonders of mathematics within just half an hour of starting.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension

By Matt Parker,

Book cover of Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension

Why this book?

I have always liked the classical geometry of triangles and circles, but Matt Parker's book helped me go way beyond that and broaden my whole outlook. And the attractively hand-drawn diagrams and zany humour just added to the whole experience. After all, how many maths authors do you know who decide to build a computer out of 10,000 dominoes, just to calculate 6 + 4? 

Alex Through the Looking-Glass

By Alex Bellos,

Book cover of Alex Through the Looking-Glass

Why this book?

This is a sequel to Alex Bellos's bestseller Alex's Adventures in Numberland, but more focused on applications of mathematics to the real world, especially through physics. Many of these were known to me, particularly when they involved calculus, but I greatly enjoyed Alex's distinctive and novel way of putting across sophisticated ideas, in part by interspersing them with personal interviews with mathematicians of all kinds.  

Teaching and Learning Algebra

By Doug French,

Book cover of Teaching and Learning Algebra

Why this book?

This may seem an odd choice, but as a maths popularizer I need to know all that I can about why some people find the main elements of the subject so difficult. I found Doug French's book exceptionally helpful in this respect, even though it is aimed principally at high school teachers. This is partly because he focuses throughout on the most important mathematical ideas and difficulties. Moreover, the scope is wider than the title suggests, for he also ventures imaginatively into both geometry and calculus.

Makers of Mathematics

By Stuart Hollingdale,

Book cover of Makers of Mathematics

Why this book?

One way of enlivening any presentation of mathematics is by including some history of the subject, but this only really works if there is some serious scholarship behind it. I especially like Hollingdale's book, partly because of the concise writing style, and partly because of the unusually good balance between history and mathematics itself. The calculus, in all its various forms, with some aspects going right back to the Ancient Greeks, is treated especially well.

Mathematics for the Million

By Lancelot Hogben,

Book cover of Mathematics for the Million: How to Master the Magic of Numbers

Why this book?

This book has haunted me for years. For what is it, exactly, that gives it such enduring popularity? After all, it was first published in 1936, yet is still in print today. In his autobiography, Hogben remarks on the importance of eye-catching illustrations but speculates that its success may instead be because the book contains – most unusually for a 'popular' work – exercises and answers, making it more suitable for self-teaching. Whatever the real answer, his book must surely have something to teach anyone – like myself – who aspires to bring mainstream mathematics to life for the general public.