Last month I wrote about shifting my shopping focus to books that I feel I have been neglecting lately – books that are about important contemporary issues or books that might teach me something.
True to my resolution, in July I bought 17 Equations that Changed the World by Ian Stewart. For those of us who are not mathematicians, the idea of ‘applied mathematics’ as a separate field of mathematics may seem a little strange; if it is not useful or applicable, then what is it for? But the development of maths has been a largely intellectual pursuit divorced from real world utility. Until relatively recently, many physicists started as mathematicians who grew frustrated by the field’s lack of real world meaning. Just as physics began to become distinct from mathematics, applied mathematics is now becoming a field of its own, though still a relatively new one with few texts devoted to it as a specialist area.
It is something I have been thinking a lot about lately, since I enjoy analytical work, and I left maths behind after freshman calculus. I’d like to learn more and this is one of a few popular books on the subject I have noted as ones to get and read. I may eventually even get one of the new undergraduate text books. I hadn’t heard of Ian Stewart before but he is a prolific author on maths for the popular audience and I may seek out more of his books since I feel certain I am going to enjoy this one.
I also bought What’s Left? by Nick Cohen. I think a lot of us in the West are wondering what has happened to politics in the last couple of years. The neat categorising between Right and Left is in ruins as are the ideals each side historically championed. We now have the bizarre situation where, in some countries, you are now more likely to find support for free trade on the Left than on the Right and more support for free speech on the Right than on the Left. Perhaps we are now experiencing a new paradigm replacing the old conservative-liberal one, or perhaps the horseshoe theory is being vindicated and the extremist/lunatic fringes of both sides, which have more in common with each other than their own side, are taking over the asylum. I have noticed that those who still believe in the old paradigm are finding it hard to know who to vote for, are increasingly calling themselves independents and are even voting for the other side. Cohen’s book, updated but first published in 2007, is frankly, prophetic.
The other purchases I made in July were opportunistic ones. In a second-hand book stall at a Sunday market I found The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers and Women’s Prize Winner Small Island by Andrea Levy. I also found The Invention of Science by David Wootton, in a book store going for one-quarter of the regular price. An easy choice given my interest in science history.
I did also make one other purchase in July which you won’t see here. A few months ago, I answered a quiz on my book buying habits where I said I had never pre-ordered a book. Well I can’t say that anymore! I have placed an order for a book that will be published in a few month’s time. I wonder what that might be?
I also finally got around to watching Martin Scorsese’s film of Silence. It was good. I liked it better than the novel even though the film follows the novel rather closely.
Speaking of applied mathematics, I’ve said before that views on this blog seem to follow the northern hemisphere school year. It seems some of my reviews are found by students looking up books they are studying. The obvious pattern made me wonder if I could derive a simple Sine wave function to describe my views and it turns out I can:
I think the relationship is freakishly close! It can never be perfect, because while I have kept the wave function symmetrical, the pattern in my views is not – the peaks come every 6 months but the troughs come an alternating 5 or 7 months. There are some clear outliers. May and July 2016 are below the wave as this rebooted blog was just getting underway, though they follow the direction of the trend. March 2017 is well over, partly for reasons I can explain and partly not. There is more variability in 2017, both up and down, but as you can see July 2017 is well under.
It has been a tough month. Views dived much more than expected. Since I am reading some long books this year and have less time to write than I normally have, I have not been able to post as often as I would like and the reviews I have posted have not been well-viewed or well-liked. Times like these make you wonder what the heck you are doing.
It especially plays on your mind when you see what others are doing. One blog I follow recently did a post to say that they very much enjoyed a book they had read, but that they were not going to review it. In fact, they weren’t going to say anything about the book, just that they had loved it. The post was probably about 100 words long and for just that it got over 40 likes! Sheesh! It made me wonder if there is a danger that a book blog could become just an echo chamber for people to say that they too liked the book that everyone else liked.
When you see that, at a time when your own stats are plummeting, you wonder if you too should succumb to popularism, put aside your own TBR lists, and read whatever is new and trending to gather likes and comments. My last two reviews got a grand total of 13 views and 4 likes! To really rub salt in, I got a comment on one of my old reviews from someone who wanted to say that their review of the book was much better! I did actually follow the link to their review but am unable to say if it was really better – I was too distracted by the fact that it was on their anti-Semitic conspiracy-theorist website. That was an easy comment to delete!
If I don’t want to be a blatant popularist, maybe I could build on where my views come from and read more books that are on school reading lists? However, some of my most popular reviews show no correlation to the overall trend and have consistently high views each month, maybe I should read more books like those? The problem is that there is no discernable pattern amongst these groups, possibly because the sample size is too small. Sure, the popular reviews that are most responsible for the overall trend may be on school reading lists, but others that students also read have not received anywhere near the same response. While the reviews that are consistently popular are all over the place – modern classics, trashy pop fiction, new and lesser-known novels. So, the idea that a conscious change in review material may change my stats is based on a presumption of predictability that I do not see justified in the data.
I think it comes down to a question of identity and purpose. You want to connect to an audience without pandering and attention-seeking. To find like-minded people without becoming an echo chamber. You want to enjoy your hobby without it feeling like work. Hardest of all, you want to be genuine without being easy to ignore. I realise my reviews are not for everyone. They are very long. I write them the way I would talk about these books with my wife or book-loving friends or how I would describe them in my long emails to long-distance friends. Views and likes are a great reward for the effort, but I think I should avoid thinking of them as the goal. Since there is little underlying predictability as to what is popular and what isn’t there is no point in trying to be something I am not for the sake of popularity. I should try to continue to be true to what I want to read and how I want to discuss what I read and not worry too much about the response. Hopefully, I will find enough people who like my way. Hopefully, I will continue to unexpectedly strike gold with future posts. Hopefully too, the pattern in my views will flatten out and I will have a consistent amount of views each month with a slight upward slope.
I did get one comment this month that gave me some pleasure. One of my favourite non-fiction writers is Simon Singh. Lately he had been tweeting about how people have been misunderstanding and misapplying the Golden Ratio. It made me anxious that I too may have been guilty of that in designing my site logo so I reached out to Singh, referring to my post on how I designed my logo, and he responded! (see here)