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  • Lewis Carroll by the Numbers
  • Jan Susina (bio)
Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life, An Agony in Eight Fits, by Robin Wilson. New York: Norton, 2008.

Lewis Carroll and mathematics is a bit like the weather—everybody talks about it, but very few people, or at least few literary critics, know what to do about it. Most literary scholars acknowledge that mathematics played a significant and highly influential role in Carroll’s life—he was Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, for twenty-six years. But by and large we are better grounded and more comfortable in discussing and analyzing Carroll’s literary texts than his mathematical ones. We are much more at home in the world of words, rather than the world of numbers. But like Alice, Carroll moved seamlessly between two worlds; his Alice books, as well as The Hunting of the Snark and Sylvie and Bruno, were all influenced by the author’s deep knowledge of and fascination with mathematics. Most literary critics acknowledge the connections, but often do little with them.

A few previous critical works defied the expectations. Like Carroll, Martin Gardner was a true polymath; he had a number of Carroll’s mathematical texts reprinted, including A Tangled Tale, A Book of Logic, and Pillow Problems, with useful introductions. Gardner’s The Universe in a Handkerchief: Lewis Carroll’s Mathematical Recreations, Games, Puzzles, and Word Plays (1996) is perhaps the most useful study of Carroll’s mathematical career and interests published prior to Wilson’s Lewis Carroll in Numberland. However, Gardner focuses primarily on Carroll’s recreational mathematics and does not address his work in algebra or geometry in great detail. Other works that provide interested readers with more detailed discussions of Carroll’s academic career as a mathematician include Francine F. Abeles’s The Mathematical Pamphlets of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Related Pieces (1994) and William Warren Bartley’s edition of Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic (1977). Both volumes collect and reprint significant mathematical work by Carroll and are carefully annotated by the respective editors, but neither is intended for the mathematically challenged. Both books assume the reader has a solid working knowledge and understanding of mathematics. Neither one is English major–friendly. [End Page 256]

Those curious readers who want a clear discussion of the mathematics Carroll taught and researched for most of his life, and the role that numbers played in his life and literary works, will find Robin Wilson’s study both accessible and comprehensive. Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Pure Mathematics at The Open University, as well as Emeritus Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London, where he held the oldest mathematics chair in England. Wilson provides an entertaining critical biography of a mathematician who wrote popular children’s books, rather than taking the standard approach of viewing Carroll as a children’s writer who was also a mathematician. The change of focus is illuminating, although at times it makes for challenging reading. While Carroll’s children’s books are filled with mathematical allusions, Wilson makes clear that this was a natural overflow from his primary interests, as Carroll was not a man who left his work at the office. In doing so, Wilson unpacks some of Carroll’s more complicated mathematics texts, particularly those dealing with geometry and logic. While Lewis Carroll in Numberland is accessible to the nonmathematician, there are multiple sections that will appeal to those readers who enjoy challenging mathematics, such as when Wilson explains the mathematical terms that appear in the title of Carroll’s most important algebra book, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, with Their Applications to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraical Geometry, published in 1867. Wilson kindly encourages readers to skip the seven-page section if they are not inclined to work through the formula. Simply realizing that Carroll was working on and publishing An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, along with The Fifth Book of Euclid Treated Algebraically (1868) and Algebraical Formulae and Rules (1870), between the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through the Looking-Glass in 1871 provides a different way of looking at him.

Carroll, who had taught symbolic logic for a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-3374
Print ISSN
0092-8208
Pages
pp. 256-259
Launched on MUSE
2012-05-30
Open Access
No
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