The I Hate Mathematics! Book, by Marilyn Burns, copyright 1975. Yeah, it's pretty old.

The I Hate Mathematics! Book, by Marilyn Burns, copyright 1975. Yeah, it’s pretty old.

There was a book that I needed to buy last week, and I found that it would cost me less money to buy four books than just the one. Evidently, Amazon determined its shipping costs on Logic’s day off. I don’t know whether to thank Amazon or Logic for that, but someone deserves my gratitude, because I have frequently managed to save money by buying extra books, and over the years, that has really added up to a lot of saved money and a lot of acquired books. In this particular case, one of the extra books I bought was something random that I remember from when I was a little kid. If I recall correctly, one of us picked it up at a library booksale where everything was so cheap that my parents let us buy everything that particularly struck our fancies. It was called The I Hate Mathematics! Book and it’s awesome because it’s so completely relatable.

I’m not saying that just because of the title, although that is part of it. When I was little, I remember my mother telling me that she thought I actually liked math, I just disliked math class. The I Hate Mathematics! Book is clearly geared towards that kind of kid. After an introduction that bashes math, it goes on for more than a hundred pages to describe mathematical concepts in a way that has nothing to do with arithmetic or equations or anything frustrating like that. For example, a few pages in, it says, “Ever find yourself thinking about shoelaces? You might be minding your own business, doing nothing in particular, and all of a sudden you start thinking about shoelaces. Then you start noticing shoelaces. Strings tied to people’s feet! And the longer you look, the funnier it seems. That’s when to do a shoelace survey. How many shoes have laces? Half? More than half? Less than half?” The book goes on to recommend sitting near a busy sidewalk and counting shoes and shoelaces for a while, just for the fun of playing with statistics.

This is youThat’s exactly the way my mind worked as a kid and it’s exactly the way my mind still works. My little-kid self thought it was awfully cool to read that kind of thing in a book about something as frustrating and hateful as math. The tone of the book is humorous and light-hearted, the information is presented in a way that makes everything seem like a game or even a practical joke, and it feels like a very light and easy read because the text is fairly sparse. (The book consists largely of sketched drawings, some of which show people with speech bubbles repeating things that were said in the main text, which is for some reason very funny.) Besides that, it was helpful and motivational to read something that showed that there’s more to math than sheets of scrap paper covered in disorganized equations and crossed out numbers and dark, harsh scribbles that symbolized the agony of living in a world that is an evil, evil place, full of hardships and heartbreak and math.

Maybe it would be an overstatement to credit this book alone with the fact that I have more or less made my peace with the academic field of mathematics and even ended up minoring in it in college. (I say “more or less” because, dude, math is hard, and there was a great deal of suffering involved in certain homework assignments and exams that I endured for the sake of that minor.) I suppose it may be true after all that I always had some degree of appreciation for mathematical thought, and just didn’t realize it when I was younger. But this book certainly played a role in convincing me that numbers are actually pretty fascinating things.

Binary CodeWhen I got this book in the mail the other day, I stayed up late to read the whole thing in one sitting, and I noticed some things about it that hadn’t occurred to me when I was a kid. In particular, I noticed that it has an awful lot of question marks. It’s full of “What if”s and “How about”s. For every experiment that this book suggests, it encourages the reader to keep thinking about different aspects of the concept being discussed. For every magic trick or practical joke or bet that it describes, it expects the reader to figure out how to make it work. It doesn’t just point out patterns, it asks the reader to notice further patterns or to speculate about why that pattern exists. Even the section about strategic games, which promises that you can always win if you figure out how the strategy works, doesn’t actually explain the trick. You have to figure it out yourself. I didn’t have all of these answers figured out when I read the book as a kid. And that was okay; it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book and it didn’t make me apathetic about the subject material. It was apparent that these were deliberately difficult questions and that a reader wasn’t supposed to know everything off the top of his or her head. That’s one reason that this book was interesting and entertaining, unlike a textbook, which inflicts anguish and despair. A puzzling question is a game if you get to decide for yourself how much effort to put into it, but it’s an unwelcome task if you are required to find the answer and responsible for being sure it’s right.

Another thing I noticed is that this book has a lot of big words for something that’s geared towards kids. (I’m not sure exactly what age range it’s intended for, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say maybe nine through twelve. The mathematical content seems to be at a pre-algebra level, but it assumes competency with basic arithmetic.) For instance, I’m pretty sure that the first time I came across the word “topography” was in this book, and that’s not a word I come across very often even now. It mentions or alludes to exponents and exponential growth, probability theory, and numerous other concepts that you wouldn’t expect a little kid to understand until they’re old enough to officially learn it in math class. But when I read it the first couple times, I don’t recall minding that there were parts of it that I only was just barely capable of grasping. The point is that I did grasp those parts, and that it was pretty awesome. This book assumes that its readers are smart and thereby subtly compliments them the whole time they’re reading. Occasionally, the book is even explicit and direct in its high regard for its own readers; the introduction identifies the individual reader as a mathematical genius in disguise. That in and of itself does a lot to make this book enjoyable and effective. Everyone likes to be told that they’re a genius, especially if they’re accustomed to being horribly frustrated by schoolwork despite the fact that they do have some degree of aptitude for the subject matter after all.



I have frequently said that the problem with math is that the kinds of people who write math textbooks are the kinds of people who inherently understand mathematical ideas and don’t know how to communicate them to someone who just doesn’t think in the same way. What makes this book so great is that it’s written in plain English for kids who understand plain English better than confusing equations. But it does that without dumbing down anything. I’m not trying to claim that such a book can be used to effectively teach math. It doesn’t offer formulas or mathematical procedures for solving certain types of problems; those are things that have to be learned by effort and memorization, not through pleasure reading. But I would recommend this book in particular and this way of looking at math in general for any mathematical geniuses in disguise who hate mathematics.