A Divine Language
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
"Wilkinson has accomplished something more moving and original, braiding his stumbling attempts to get better at math with his deepening awareness that there’s an entire universe of understanding that will, in some fundamental sense, forever lie outside his reach." —Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
"There is almost no writer I admire as much as I do Alec Wilkinson. His work has enduring brilliance and humanity.” —Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book
A spirited, metaphysical exploration into math's deepest mysteries and conundrums at the crux of middle age.
Decades after struggling to understand math as a boy, Alec Wilkinson decides to embark on a journey to learn it as a middle-aged man. What begins as a personal challenge—and it's challenging—soon transforms into something greater than a belabored effort to learn math. Despite his incompetence, Wilkinson encounters a universe of unexpected mysteries in his pursuit of mathematical knowledge and quickly becomes fascinated; soon, his exercise in personal growth (and torture) morphs into an intellectually expansive exploration.
In A Divine Language, Wilkinson, a contributor to The New Yorker for over forty years, journeys into the heart of the divine aspect of mathematics—its mysteries, challenges, and revelations—since antiquity. As he submits himself to the lure of deep mathematics, he takes the reader through his investigations into the subject’s big questions—number theory and the creation of numbers, the debate over math’s human or otherworldly origins, problems and equations that remain unsolved after centuries, the conundrum of prime numbers. Writing with warm humor and sharp observation as he traverses practical math’s endless frustrations and rewards, Wilkinson provides an awe-inspiring account of an adventure from a land of strange sights. Part memoir, part metaphysical travel book, and part journey in self-improvement, A Divine Language is one man’s second attempt at understanding the numbers in front of him, and the world beyond.