I was just about to leave for the Joint Mathematics Meetings, and the long plane ride meant I needed something to read. Casting about semi-randomly for something that would put me in the right mood, I happened to grab the book under review. It turned out to be a good choice.
I suspect people are going to think it’s a weird choice. For one thing, this is a collection of book reviews. They were first published in 2005. They were (and are) published online, and access to them is free: just go to http://www.ircps.org/aestimatio. The book, on the other hand, is quite expensive.
So what’s the point of collecting book reviews published online into a book? Who would want to buy a book instead of just reading the reviews online, for free? And why am I reading old book reviews, most of which are about even older books?
Let’s deal with reading book reviews first. I love doing it. A good book review is really an essay prompted by a book. It will give the reviewer’s view of the book, no doubt, but will also give me some level of access to the knowledge contained in it. Since I cannot possibly read all the books that exist out there, reading a review that interacts closely with the contents gives me a glimpse of what is going on in that part of the intellectual world.
A nice example from this volume is a review of a new edition of Frontinus’ book on the Roman system of aqueducts. This is critical edition of a book in Latin, so it’s a fairly good bet I will never read it. (I can’t read Latin.) But now I know a little bit about who Frontinus was, what he wrote about, and why he wrote something that has been in my quotes file for a while: “I ask you! Just compare with the vast monuments of this vital aqueduct network those useless Pyramids, or the good-for-nothing tourist attractions of the Greeks!”
It turns out that a more literal translation (provided by the editor of the Latin edition on his web page, of course) is “With these grand structures, so numerous and indispensable, carrying so many waters, who indeed would compare the idle Pyramids or other useless, although renowned, works of the Greeks?” But I kind of like the overheated version. And, of course, the point is that Frontinus spent a good chunk of his life as curator aquarum, i.e., the tender of the waters, in charge of those aqueducts. No wonder he was proud of them!
I could have read this review online, of course, but I realized as I was working through the book that I never would have. To be precise, I had read only a few of the reviews collected in this volume: a review of my own Math through the Ages (short but useful, with at least one criticism that we should take care of in the second edition), a review I wrote myself (not very interesting), and a review of S. Cuomo’s very nice Ancient Mathematics (currently my recommendation as an introductory book on the subject). But I didn’t read that Frontinus review online: having seen it there I skipped over it to see if there was something more interesting. The dynamic is different. In a book, I turn the page and start reading. I might skip to the next review if I get bored, but I’ll read a paragraph or two first. Online, I’m much more selective.
When I checked these reviews online, I did find something I was interested in: Fábio Acerbi’s review of Reviel Netz’s The Transformation of Mathematics in the Early Mediterranean World. But didn’t read that either. I saw it, but when I realized that it was 60 pages long I decided to print it out. I can’t stare at a screen for that long. And then it suffered the fate of all printouts, sitting on my desk under huge piles of other printouts. So I finally read it on the plane to San Diego… and in my hotel room while I was there… and finished it just before it was time for the flight home. (It’s a fascinating thing to read: an all-out, no-holds-barred attack on the main thesis of Netz’s book.)
MAA Reviews sometimes receives books that are based on materials available for free on the internet: books based on blogs, or printed versions of open-source textbooks, for example. In the past, I have wondered whether anyone would pay for them. Now I know that I would… but perhaps not quite as much as Gorgias’ list price. Wait for a sale!
Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College, editor of MAA Reviews, editor of the Carus Mathematical Monographs, and an old fogey.