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Once Upon a Prime

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Member Reviews

I loved loved loved loved loved reading this book. I have never felt such a renewed connection and understanding of mathematics than I have from this book and I offer my sincere thanks to Professor Hart for sharing this book with the world.

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As someone with a math degree and a library degree, this book felt custom written for me. Although I'm not well-versed in the classics, I did appreciate the connections that Hart made between books like Moby Dick and math. I most enjoyed the parts where she discussed books that I've read, such as Life of Pi, Alice in Wonderland, and Arcadia. I learned some knew trivia, thought about some math topics differently, and overall enjoyed it. Now I am off to read Half a Yellow Sun - I love Adichie so I don't know how I missed that one and I'm excited that it has a math connection!

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A book bridging mathematics and literature has a few options: 1) It can be dull and dry; 2) It can be unobtainable; 3) or it can be Sarah Hart's book, Once Upon a Prime.

Funny, rich, approachable, and just the right amount of quirkiness, Hart dispels any myths about the separation between mathematics and literature. Relying on examples in-depth, from well-known to more obscure texts, Hart pulls mathematical concepts from the pages of story deftly and with an academic personableness. Many of the texts I have read or am familiar with, and Hart pointed out mathematical elements that I had simply glossed over with the previous reads.

I've often wondered about the layers and structuring of literature. Metaphor and simile offer hooks to hang many elements, including texture, emotion, color, and movement, but they are not elements of structure. What is the architecture of literature?

We are not left stranded as writers and readers, for mathematics steps in to offer structures, equations, and models. In Once Upon a Prime, Sarah Hart rifles through classic and contemporary literature from Moby Dick to A Gentleman in Moscow, from beloved novels to outlier texts, to share the plethora of mathematical referneces, and not only an arrow pointing to mathematics, but also a snapshot into the ways mathematics provides a platform for story of strength, movement, and centenial wisdom. Mathematics, and the many solved and unsolved mysteries of mathematics, have been harnessed into literature for centuries. Puzzles, secret codes, as in Sherlock Holmes, and inaccurate mathematics, such as in Gulliver's Travels, keep the literary landscape rich and intriguing.

Also, the book touches on mathematicians who were also obsessed with ones, ones I was familiar with such as Lewis Carroll and his charming Alice In Wonderland, and ones I was unaware of such as George Eliot, who weaved her daily, voluntary lessons in mathematics into her beloved literature.

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It's a causal assumption that literature and mathematics are two very distant points on the map of disciplinary space. In other words, we think the two don't mix much and when they do they don't mix well. Here, enters Sarah Hart, professor of mathematics at Birkbeck, University of London to try and disabuse us of this notion in her book Once Upon a Prime.

Once Upon a Prime is divided into three parts, roughly three chapters per section. The first discusses the "fundamental structures of literary text, from plot in novels to rhyme scheme in verse." The second is focused on the use of mathematical metaphors in literature. And the final section illustrates how mathematics can be deployed creatively in literature and takes a critical eye at some well-known uses: The Life of Pi, Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, and Flatland. There is a lot of interesting, entertaining, and edifying information distributed throughout the text, but the middle section drags and feels a bit like random trivia. I also wish the first section, especially "The Geometry of Narrative" chapter, was expanded significantly. For instance, Hart mentions Vonnegut's "Shape of Story" lecture but doesn't engage comprehensively or deeply enough with these ideas. I was disappointed by this as the introduction led me to believe this content figure prominently in the book. Fortunately, Hart does provide a detailed analysis of the structure of verse though the analysis is primarily focused on rhyme schema. There is a discussion of meter, but I found it somewhat confusing relative to more traditional discussions of how meter functions. It would have also benefitted to book to explore if there are certain poetic structures that are more inherently pleasing than others to humans. Don't the ostensibly recurring patterns in visual, auditory, and literary arts suggest a universal structure to beauty? Or are the structures variable enough across time and culture to suggest otherwise? Some of these topics may be outside the scope of the book, but I think exploring them would have made the book more resonant with a broader readership and would have provided a deep link between math and art for readers.

After finishing, Once Upon a Prime I confess I am not entirely persuaded by the premise. I grant that literature has structure and that this can be described mathematically or statistically. But this seems like a reading a bit much into a trivial observation. If we accept the Chomskyite theory of universal grammar (probably our best theory of language), can't we make claims about structure for all spoken or written communication? Maybe Hart would concede this and argue that there are certain math structures that elevate language aesthetically. Unfortunately, claims to this effect aren't made in the book. Instead the treatment of math in literature is mostly as a playful and experimental exercise. Hence, we are blessed with lots of discussion about Oulipo or the "workshop of potential literature." This was a group of French intellectuals who essentially tried mathematical experiments in literature, such as writing whole novels without using certain letters (i.e. a lipogram). I enjoyed learning about Oulipo and their members, but this seemed content tangential to the purported central claim of Once Upon a Prime.

Despite the grab bagginess of the book, Hart communicates complex ideas clearly and accessibly. There is a lot to amuse readers within the book, and there are a few instances where Hart belabors or indulges concepts beyond what would be tolerable to general readers. She also always shows her work, sketching out the equation and computations that accompany the described math. Still, the reading experiences can feel a bit like being inside a pinball machine. Hart bounces from topic to topic rapidly and sometimes wanders various tangents down too far before returning.

Although my criticisms may seem strong, I really appreciated the attempt made by Hart. In fact, the effort was probably a bit too ambitious. Each section (or even some of the chapters) could have probably been given book-length treatments. Plus, these concepts and topics aren't necessarily the most general-audience-friendly. It certainly took considerable creativity and economy from Hart to even acceptably assemble this work. Considering all this, I recommend this one. It's unique, making its weaknesses quite tolerable if not useful. And honestly, I did enjoy many portions immensely: the section on cryptography, the miscellaneous history of mathematical and literary figures, and various esoterica one could only find in a book like this.

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This is a clever look at the intersection of math and literature. It will appeal to a cross-section of some people who have a foot in two worlds that the author convincingly argues are tightly bound.

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This book was jam packed with fascinating connections between the worlds of mathematics and literature. In spite of the dense subject matter, Hart's prose was light and entertaining throughout. It was fun to look through such an unusual lens on a beloved topic. I've already recommended this to some of my math-minded friends and family.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Flatiron Books for an advanced copy of this book on mathematics, literature, how they compliment each other, and the hidden use of numbers inside of so many classic books.

Every math teacher I ever had made it quite clear that all the geometry, algebra, calculus and every little bit of math I learned in school, not well, was going to be necessary in life out of school. Some of the math yes, I need to understand some or the hard science fiction I was reading. And yes, after graduating math did make an appearance in balancing what I had in a band account, and all the things I wanted to buy. However it was working in a bookstore that made math important and necessary. In the day before phones we would have to be able to figure out the price of books with various discount stickers. Institutional orders would take a certain amount of math, and geometry always came in when designing our tables for display. A briefly foray in chain stores taught me metrics of customers per sale, and membership conversions, something like calculus I have rid my mind of. So books did teach me math appreciation in more ways than one. And now after reading Professor Sarah Hart's Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature I see the influence of math on many books that I have read and can appreciate the connections even more.

The book begins with a brief description of the author, a love of both books and numbers, rising to be one of the first woman to hold England's oldest mathematical chairs, and rediscovering literature through a happy incident. While rocking her baby sleep at night, Professor Hart found it best to use an e-reader to read, which brought her back to literature and the numbers that she never really thought about that appeared in many books. There is a discussion about cycloids, a beautiful mathematical arc the appears in both Moby Dick and other writings, that engaged the interests of Blaise Pascal and Galileo. A chapter on poetry, looks at rhyme schemes, and how one poet with skill could make two poems with the same rhymes a large groups of poems, just by changing lines around. Actually the section on poetry was one I enjoyed the most, learning about the numbers that make up a haiku or a sonnet, and all the possibilities that are hidden among the words. Sherlock Holmes is of course a featured player as his arch-nemesis the "Napoleon of Crime" was of course a mathematician who was known for a book about asteroids, not for trying to kill Holmes numerous time. Dan Brown makes an appearance in a part about bad numbers in literature, which is both funny and revealing how anything can be tweaked to make it sound good.

A very enjoyable book, with a different view of both math and literature. Not stogey, but very well written with a lot of humor, and great examples of math and literature. The writing is very good, funny and informative, without much lecturing. Professor Hart is very good at explaining what principles Hart is discussing, and why it is important. Also readers can tell Hart enjoys reading and math, and wants to share that joy, with others. Math is a part of life, honestly we are counting the moments till we are gone everyday. To know math is important to even what we do for fun, is a great lesson, and I can appreciate more the beauty and mystery among some classics of literature.

Recommended for people interested in math, mainly to remind them to read a book and look at the world once in awhile. Also for people studying or interested in literature, especially poetry. Readers learn a new way of looking. Very good and a lot of fun.

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It is said that there are two kinds of people: numbers people and letters people. Sarah Hart challenges this notion, being a mathematician who loves to read. In this fascinating book, she explains how many authors integrated math into literary masterpieces. From novels with mathematical structures to characters obsessed with numbers, from Moby Dick to Sherlock Holmes, it is amazing to learn that so much math can be found there. Hart has a great sense of humor and explains some complicated concepts in an approachable way, without talking down at readers. I particularly enjoyed the examples of “bad math” that can be found in Dan Brown or Stieg Larsson. She also clearly shows how the image that we have of math geeks as being ultra-logical machines with no feelings is wrong. As a book lover who knows nothing about math, I enjoyed and understood it.
I chose to read this book and all opinions in this review are my own and completely unbiased. Thank you, #NetGalley/#Flatiron Books!

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⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I loved once upon a prime. Though at first I found it a little disorienting. I’m a mathematician who is currently struggling through War and Peace, and Moby Dick on my ereader. And I’m the beginning the author talks about struggling through war and peace and Moby dick on, wait for it, her ereader. I sort of was wondering if I had had a bout of amnesia and forgotten I wrote a whole book. This book is full of interesting Mathematical tidbits and facts about classic works of literature. If your interested in one of those things and can tolerate the other—I think you’d like this book. It’s not a book that’s trying to hide from you or play games. If you hear “mathematical discussions of literature” and think “hey I’d like to read 250 pages about that” you’ll like this book. It’s exactly what it says on the cover. I’m just not sure how wide the audience is for this book. I’d love to be wrong and for there to be throngs of people queueing up to buy this but I just think there’s a small population of people interested in fractals and a small population interested in Moby Dick so how big can the intersection of those populations be? I did very much enjoy how little time the author has for Dan Brown’s nonsense. I was provided an ARC in exchange for this honest review. #bookstagram #bookreview #mathematician #primenumbers #memoir

Will be posted on Goodreads/instagram/blog March 14 (PI DAY!)

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This book instantly caught my attention with its punny title. Both math and literature are wide ranging subjects, and this book does a good job in demonstrating its scope. Explanations are clearly written and easy to follow. The author's love for teaching definitely comes through and adds to the overall enjoyment of reading this book. The organization is logical and has good progression. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in literature, math, or history, and anyone who likes learning more about patterns, structure, logic, and organization.

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