Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Books that Educate

In her last post, Morgan said that, for her, reading is entertainment and not work. I agree for the most part. I read to be entertained and, when a book ceases to be entertaining, I put it aside.

However, there is a class of novels for which I make an exception. These are novels that are intended to teach some subject, usually in conjunction with a more standard textbook on the topic. I suppose my fascination with these books stems from having spent my entire career in academia. Education can be difficult and educators often like to add some sugar to make the medicine go down. Learning also works best if it can be applied. Real-life applications, however, might be economically or practically unfeasible, but a novel might provide a surrogate for real-life.

I first encountered this kind of novel as an undergraduate psychology major. The novel was B. F. Skinner's Walden Two. Skinner was the world's foremost behavioral psychologist, an influential proponent of what he termed, "the technology of behavior." In Walden Two, Skinner took Thoreau's concept of a "community of philosophers" and created a utopian vision based on principles of behavioral psychology. The book was highly successful and planned communities based on Walden Two have been attempted around the world. It was certainly successful at teaching me behavioral psychology.

I've found other novels on such disparate topics as accounting, nursing, and mathematics. None have been as successful as Walden Two. Most of them suffer from the same defects. First, the authors, although well-intentioned and knowledgeable in their areas, are not skilled at writing fiction. Let's not kid ourselves, academic writing and fiction writing are two different skills. Academics, for all their intellectual capabilities, are rarely able to make the transition from one to the other. Skinner was an exception. He had planned to be a novelist and attempted to make a go of it before turning to psychology.

The second defect is inherent in the nature of such novels. They are essentially info dumps with a layer of sugar to make the info more palatable. Any author knows that info dumps can be deadly. Even if the information itself is interesting, a lump of undigested facts and principles destroys pacing and suspense.

Recently I came across Pythagoras' Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery by Arturo Sangalli, published by Princeton University Press. I went for it, like moth to a flame. I downloaded it in Kindle. As Sangalli states in the preface, he originally proposed a treatise on the tyranny or numbers in modern society, but, with the support of his editor, turned it into a work of fiction. His goal was to introduce challenging mathematical concepts to a large audience. The result is sort of a geeky DaVinci Code. There are ancient mysteries, a secret society intent on finding a lost manuscript, and the possible reincarnation of Pythagoras, himself.

The mathematics are interesting, and, I confess,  I learned a lot. The book gives a visual proof of Pythagoras' famous theorem. When I mentioned that to a mathematics professor/friend, she got all excited and allowed as how someone has just produced an origami proof of the same theorem, which probably drew on the visual proof.

Sangalli is not the worst academic turned novelist. He does a competent job although the book still suffers from the info dump problem. The proof of the theorem, for example, goes on for twelve pages. It's carried out as a conversation between two very smart people. Although interesting in itself, it lacks conflict and slows the pace to a crawl. It's in this section that Sangalli makes a glaring error. The smart person who presents the proof tells the other smart person to think of her as a human Google. The trouble is, this scene supposedly took place in January 1998. Although the Google inventors had begun beta testing by that time, they did not create the company until the end of that year. I probably would have tossed the book at that point, but by then I was hooked on learning more about Pythagoras.

In sum, I recommend this book. You'll learn a lot. The concepts, when presented in the framework of a thriller, are easy to absorb. Just don't expect a page-turner or characters who leap off the page.

Mark Troy
Hawaiian Eye Blog
Game Face, a collection of short mystery stories is available on Kindle, Nook, iPad and other devices.

1 comment:

Morgan Mandel said...

I can see if you're interested in a certain topic you'd be inclined to read a book which goes into depth on it.

Morgan Mandel