"The Calculus of Friendship" by Steven Strogatz

In The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math, Cornell University math Professor Steven Strogatz shares some of the correspondence he shared over several decades with his high school calculus teacher, Don Joffray.

The book is short, and a quick read if you don’t try to follow too closely the mathematics the two correspondents toss at each other. The two men reverse roles over time — originally Strogatz was the student, but in time he becomes the teacher. Along the way, Strogatz and “Joff” share the joy of being challenged by interesting math problems. But their interaction, while lively, is also frequently sporadic. Neither man (particularly Strogatz) seems comfortable in becoming a friend who shares more than just a love of math and the highlights of day-to-day life. It is only as the two men grow older that they bridge the gap and communicate their more personal feelings. Both men suffered the kinds of personal losses common to most of humankind, but they each failed to share their vulnerability and need for emotional support. One can appreciate the special bond between these two men, even as one can imagine what a deeper relationship might have brought them.

Yes, mathematics is key to this story. But the real theme is friendship, what brings us together, and what we may miss out on by not opening up on a deeper level.

Perplexed, and Meta-Perplexed

A Guide for the PerplexedA Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading Dara Horn's "A Guide for the Perplexed" has left me sufficiently perplexed. I'm glad I read the book but I'm also glad I didn't have to read this in school and satisfy the teacher somehow that I knew what the "theme" of the book was. On one hand, novels (like this one) that use interwoven stories across centuries as a device always interest me, because I'm always interested in connections, and parallels. But I had believed, based on the book's description, that technology would play a greater role in the story. Instead, technology was more than counterbalanced by a focus on people, their relationships, why they love and why they hate and why they envy and why sometimes the universe just doesn't make sense to them. How is it that good fortune comes to some but not others? I can say I certainly didn't anticipate the twist of fortunes that bring the novel to a close.

Philosophy plays a key role in this book, underlying all the interrelated timelines of events. And because I had a hard time grasping more than a surface-level understanding of the philosophy, I can't help but wonder what I might have missed that was important. And did I miss what I did because of my own ignorance, or because the author didn't make things sufficiently clear? If I'm left perplexed, whose fault is that?

Perhaps a Cliff Notes booklet analyzing this book could be a guide for the perplexed who have read "A Guide for the Perplexed."

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