As I finished reading Steven Connor’s entertaining, provocative and occasionally irritating book, I was keeping in mind various points that I intended to make in this review, only to be disarmed when the author’s very short conclusion anticipated several of these. The book’s main theme is the hostility to number apparently found in those who work in the humanities, and who view measurement as overly reductive and missing the point. I think, as Connor himself wonders in his conclusion, that this is a dubious generalisation. However, in arguing for the importance of number in the humanities, he presents us with illuminating analysis and a host of valuable insights.
His approach is to quote liberally, from writers as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Michel Serres, Lewis Carroll, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Virginia Woolf and Marcus du Sautoy. He adds his own commentary and has an enjoyable tendency to throw in perceptive aphorisms (“A number is a prediction masquerading as a predication”). Inevitably, there are thoughts with which some readers will disagree. He makes it clear that his primary audience is not mathematicians, so perhaps it is unfair for me to quibble with his suggestion that mathematicians “recoil from the horror” of the solutions to the travelling salesman problem found by trial and error by ant colonies: in my experience, these fascinate mathematicians and are very much part of our subject.
Along the way, Connor shows how number is essential to literary criticism, music, visual art and even to pleasure. I particularly appreciated the discussion of Jasper Johns’ paintings and the work of Roman Opałka, who for the last 45 years of his life filled canvases by painting all the natural numbers in order: Opałka’s art fits so perfectly with the book’s theme that one might almost think he had been invented for the purpose – but, yes, he really did exist. It is an indication of the richness of Connor’s content that frequently I wanted more: for example, his discussion of how the number of items, indefinite until found by counting, had always nevertheless been fixed before it was counted, seems to me to cry out for a segue into the interpretations of quantum theory with which it resonates.
Although this is ostensibly a book about number, it is inevitably also about words. Connor’s analysis of terms such as “multitude” and “shedload” is, as one might expect from a professor of English, fascinating and insightful, confirming his point at the beginning of the book that number and language cannot be separated but that each is part of the other.
Readers of this book will be mentally engaged in a dialogue with the author throughout. When so much ground is covered, there are bound to be points one might wish to dispute. But Connor is always stimulating as well as witty, and even if his stated purpose of refuting the perceived allergy to number in the humanities is, I feel, something of a straw man, each of this book’s chapters offers valuable and generally convincing analysis.
If, at the end, I was left wondering whether the whole book amounts to more than the sum of these separate parts, that’s not an entirely inappropriate conclusion regarding such a provocative reflection on number.
Tony Mann is director of the Greenwich Maths Centre, University of Greenwich.
Living by Numbers: In Defence of Quantity
By Steven Connor
Reaktion, 256pp, £15.00
Published 15 September 2016