I once opened a review of a Martin Gardner math book by stating, “If there were mathematics of watching paint dry, Martin Gardner could make it interesting.” As I prepared to read this book, I wondered if the master of mathematical exposition could make his life as interesting as the many areas of mathematics that he described so well. In one sense, an autobiography is one of the hardest books to keep interesting. To the author all that he did will seem important, for it was his life. While there is no question that the topics he wrote about were important and helped convince thousands that they could enjoy math, topics such as his life as an undergraduate, the girls he kissed, the boys he argued with, the sports he played and the routine problems of life that he struggled with simply don’t ring most people’s “this is interesting” bell.
I am pleased to report that Gardner was indeed able to keep the story of his life interesting, albeit understated. For example, he briefly mentions his membership in the Trap Door Spiders, the group of science fiction writers that Isaac Asimov used as a template for his enjoyable stories about the Black Widow Spiders group. There is a very short mention of Gardner’s relationship with Asimov and I found myself wishing that Gardner would have elaborated on that. Given Asimov’s gregariousness and Gardner’s ability to describe, there is no doubt that any stories would have been entertaining. That is no doubt also true of many of the other relationships that Gardner had with other major personalities in mathematics, magic and other areas of human endeavor.
Another valuable consequence of reading this book was that I began researching the non-mathematical books by Gardner. I believe that I have read all the books that were based on his Scientific American articles and most of the others where the subject was mathematics. One that I had never heard of was his Annotated Casey at the Bat, a book that I was so interested in that I ordered it within minutes of reading about it in this book.
He wrote about so many things besides mathematics! And because the mathematics books were so good, his other works often get ignored. I found myself regretting that Gardner didn’t explain his non-mathematical books more.
In summary, I give this book the highest praise that I can possibly give an autobiography: it was much too short.
Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.