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My Summer Math Reading List

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, June 6, 2013

Summer is here! Time for picnics, playing at the beach, gardening, and reading! One of my fondest memories as an elementary student was riding my bike to the pool and stopping at the library on the way home to pick up another book for the summer reading club. At the end of each school year, we were given a summer reading list with two books assigned and the others as suggested readings. I still love to read and summer is the time to enjoy the books that have been sitting on my shelf waiting to spend some time with me.

I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite books from the past and the present. I hope you will find a gem hidden here! What follows are some of my favorite math reads. Some are old friends waiting to be reacquainted and some are strangers waiting to become friends. Whether you teach preschool or college, perhaps there is a title or two here for you to enjoy this summer.

The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse by Jennifer Ouellette
I found this book on Amazon about a year ago. Truthfully, the subtitle is what caught my eye. From the description I learned that Jennifer Ouellette never took a math course in college, mostly because she thought she wouldn't need math in real life. An English major who subsequently found a career in writing in the field of science, she decided that she really should know more about the subject that she had always avoided. Her take on the equations and formulas that had haunted her for years is not only enjoyable, but her account of her year spent confronting her math phobia head-on is fascinating and delightful! With wit, Ouellette shows how she learned to apply calculus to everything from gas mileage to dieting, from the rides at Disneyland to shooting craps in Vegas.

Mathematics:A Human Endeavor by Harold R. Jacobs
This book was given to me when I completed my graduate work as a K–8 mathematics specialist. I saw that it had been purchased at the college bookstore, and I immediately thought boring! So it sat on my shelf for several years. A few years later, I had several very bright fifth graders in my class. They were ready for more than the textbook had to offer. While digging through my bookshelves for some interesting and challenging problems, I happened upon Mathematics A Human Endeavor, dug into it, and never looked back. Using this book as my primary resource, I built several units exploring topics from probability to polyhedra, from number puzzles to permutations. In addition to truly having fun with mathematics by exploring topics that were interesting, my students realized that everything in mathematics works for a reason. I worked through every problem in the book that year, and I learned a great deal of mathematics myself! Harold Jacobs, the author, taught high school for many years in California. He is a member of NCTM and still speaks at the CMC Asilomar every year and packs the room!

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
This work of science fiction, first published in 1962, has received several awards, including the Newbery Medal. Although focused on a science theme, the story of Meg and her younger brother, Charles Wallace, who are thought to be slow and have a difficult time fitting in, has something intriguingly mathematical about it. The adventure begins when Meg, Charles, and their new friend Calvin are transported on an adventure through time and space to rescue Meg and Charles’s father, a gifted scientist, from the evil forces that hold him prisoner on another planet. If you enjoy A Wrinkle in Time, you will find more wonderful adventures in the other novels forming a quintet along with it: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. 

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I first met this wonderful work of fiction when it was assigned to my fifth graders by their reading teacher. Our reading program was entirely built around works of literature, and my students enjoyed the fact that their mathematics teacher was reading the books that they were reading. Milo—who is bored with just about everything in life—is knocked out of his ennui by the sudden appearance of a tollbooth in his bedroom. Because Milo has absolutely nothing better to do, he dusts off his toy car, pays the toll, and drives through. What ensues is a journey of mythic proportions, during which Milo encounters countless odd characters, who are anything but dull. Among the places he visits are Digitopolis, where he meets the Dodecahedron (a character with 12 faces!). This delightful book is full of wordplay and math play and is a must-read for you and your students of all ages.

The next two books are on my summer reading list. The first is already on my shelf and just waiting for me. The second I stumbled upon while digging around the Amazon website. The summaries are from Amazon.  I cannot wait to start reading!

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz
“A world-class mathematician and regular contributor to the New York Times hosts a delightful tour of the greatest ideas of math, revealing how it connects to literature, philosophy, law, medicine, art, business, even pop culture in ways we never imagined. Did O.J. do it? How should you flip your mattress to get the maximum wear out of it? How does Google search the Internet? How many people should you date before settling down? Believe it or not, math plays a crucial role in answering all of these questions and more. Math underpins everything in the cosmos, including us, yet too few of us understand this universal language well enough to revel in its wisdom, its beauty—and its joy. This deeply enlightening, vastly entertaining volume translates math in a way that is at once intelligible and thrilling. Showing why he has won awards as a professor at Cornell and garnered extensive praise for his articles about math for the New York Times, Strogatz presumes of his readers only curiosity and common sense. And he rewards them with clear, ingenious, and often funny explanations of the most vital and exciting principles of his discipline.”

Here’s Looking at Euclid: From Counting Ants to Games of Chance—An Awe-Inspiring Journey Through the World of Numbers
by Alex Bellos
“Too often math gets a bad rap, characterized as dry and difficult. But, Alex Bellos says, ‘math can be inspiring and brilliantly creative. Mathematical thought is one of the great achievements of the human race, and arguably the foundation of all human progress. The world of mathematics is a remarkable place.’ Bellos has traveled all around the globe and has plunged into history to uncover fascinating stories of mathematical achievement, from the breakthroughs of Euclid, the greatest mathematician of all time, to the creations of the Zen master of origami, one of the hottest areas of mathematical work today. Taking us into the wilds of the Amazon, he tells the story of a tribe there who can count only to five and reports on the latest findings about the math instinct—including the revelation that ants can actually count how many steps they’ve taken. Journeying to the Bay of Bengal, he interviews a Hindu sage about the brilliant mathematical insights of the Buddha, while in Japan he visits the godfather of Sudoku and introduces the brainteasing delights of mathematical games.”

Have a great summer and happy reading!

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