In the middle of May, although I had just sent Nature my review of Siobhan Roberts’s biography of John Conway, Nature wrote back to me asking whether I might consider writing
a short review of approximately 175 words on your pick of the science books published within the last year or so
for the Summer Books special. I had managed to cut my usual long-windedness down to about 900 words for the Roberts review, but I wasn’t sure there would be anything left if I halved and halved again. But I checked and discovered that Nature had only devoted an 87-word Books in Brief item to Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong when it came out, and I decided to do my part to rectify the (50%? 87.5%?) omission.
The review came out this week. I’m glad to have made use of the invitation to add my contribution to the many nice things that have been written about JE’s book, but I can’t say I’m especially proud of the result. Nature Books and Arts editor Barbara Kiser managed better to capture the spirit of How Not to Be Wrong in her 87 words than I did in twice the space. If I were the “poetic mathematician” Siobhan Roberts tweeted about I would have known how to make my 175-word allotment sparkle; I’m wondering, in fact, whether my inability to combine content with concision entitles me to demur the next time someone is kind enough to refer to me as a writer (I’ll have more to say about this soon enough).
What’s particularly frustrating is that when I accepted the mission I really did think I would be able to convey just what makes HNTBW work so well. Practice, of course, has a lot to do with it. So does personality. It occurs to me that, although I’ve known Jordan for quite a long time, and we supposedly work in closely related fields, I’ve actually never seen him lecture. Although it shouldn’t matter for a book review, I have a feeling that having attended one of his lectures would have helped me understand how he manages to put together such compelling stories about mathematics. (And then I could have advanced to the next step:
stealing adapting his technique to my own “intriguing authorial voice.”)
I’m quite happy with my 900-word review of the Roberts book, although it was cut. I’m even happier with the third review that will be coming out (in a more specialized journal) later this year; probably because it had no word limit.