David Foster Wallace
DISCLAIMER: David Foster Wallace graduated from Amherst College a year before me. As far as I know, our paths never crossed.
It's hard to assess Everything and More. It's probably too consciously literary for most mathematicians, and it's certainly too mathematical for most humanists. David Foster Wallace set out to write a book about advanced mathematics that would be reasonably accurate, stylishly written, and demanding of no more than high-school math. It's no surprise that he didn't fully succeed; the wonder is that he succeeded at all.
The book starts zippily enough. If you're not actually math-phobic, you can probably get through the first 100-150 pages pretty easily, particularly if you're willing to skim some bits (which I was not, but never mind). By the time we get to EMERGENCY GLOSSARY II, that's not really an option. If you want to profit from this book, you won't need to do differential equations, but you will need slow down and seriously think through some stuff.
If you're willing to do that, your reward will be a not-totally-rigorous-but-mathematically-informed understanding of some deep concepts, such as:
- Why some infinities are larger than other infinities
- Zeno's Paradoxes
- What set theory really is, and what it's good for, and why it matters
- Some mathematical proofs that are both brilliant and quite simple
To bracket the target audience, then, I'll give two comparisons.
- Subject-matter-wise, there's a pretty good overlap with Douglas Hofstadter's classic Gödel, Escher, Bach. Some of the same actors, and some of the same math concepts, pop up in each.
- Stylistically, it pairs well with Neal Stephenson, most particularly his excellent philosophical geek-heroic science fiction adventure (yes, really) Anathem. By no coincidence, Stephenson provides the introduction to the 2010 edition of the present opus.