One, Two, Three
by David Berlinski
One, Two, Three is a book about mathematics, philosophy, and to some degree, the beautiful art of humanity’s development into complex social systems. By explaining the methods we’ve used to define our natural world numerically and how these have changed through time by becoming increasingly nuanced, David Berlinski attempts to dig deep into the fabric of human cognition. It’s a great venture, and a subject full of endless potential for wonderment. What’s frustrating about One, Two Three then, is how poorly Berlinski communicates his ideas.
While the subject matter is fascinating itself, as a book, One, Two, Three has many problems. For starters, Berlinski’s narratives are difficult to follow. Names of ancient mathematicians are tossed around too freely, and unless you already have an idea for the overarching historical narrative, it’s easy to become lost. While some of his ideas have a degree of profundity (there are indeed some moments of deep introspection), Berlinski too quickly drops into confusing rhetoric, which often enough includes mathematical equations that steal away the romance of his notions before they ever have time to settle.
It seems that the author (or his publishers) are keenly aware that mathematics is risky business for a news stand book, and Berlinski tries, if a bit too hard, to soften the edge of his enumerations by writing with a soft voice, coaxing his reader along as easily as possible. Unfortunately the subject matter just doesn’t permit it, and he even goes so far as to try to give personas to his figures. For example, when he explains that, “In defining exponentiation, any allegiance to the number ten may be dismissed. That allegiance was forged with familiarity in mind,” not only is it confusing, but it’s just tacky writing.
As a result, One, Two, Three has a distinctly Carl Sagan voice to it, though far drier and much less interesting or inspiring. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Berlinski’s prose were half-readable. In fact, it’s pretty awful in most instances, and serves as evidence for why mathematicians should not be left alone to write books geared towards laypeople.
It’s a shame that Berlinski’s knowledge is so easily lost on the reader in One, Two, Three, and the book reminds me of an obligatory first year introductory course in mathematics in which only a small percentage of the class can summon the will to follow along. That’s not to say that his premises are flawed in any way, or that his ideas lack depth. They are, in fact, fascinating, and at times can be insightful, however he just isn’t able to communicate them well. Nuggets of wisdom are scrambled within the mess of an idiosyncratic writing style that’s rife with confusing phrasing and awkward allegories and exasperated by confusing narratives. To be fair, it’s clear that this is a book that would be more easily digested if the reader were versed in mathematics. For that reason (and others), I imagine that One, Two, Three will have a small audience.
by Jordan Ardanaz