Don's diary: 94 books, 30 days, 1 prize

July 4, 2003

March
I am beginning to wonder whether this was such a good idea.

Judging the AventisScience Book prize sounded rather prestigious, but looking at the four hugeboxes of books that have just arrived, it suddenly dawns on me how much work I have let myself in for.

I finished W. G. Sebald's novel, Austerlitz, last night, but my bedside reading for the next few months will be a mixture of DNA, black holes and quarks. Still, they promised that Kate Moss would also be on the judging panel, and I could hardly turn down the chance to meet a supermodel.

"Never judge a book by its cover," they say, but it is hard to resist a little prejudging as each book emerges from the box. Being a mathematician, I decide to work out how many books I am meant to read a day: 94 divided by 30. That's 3.1333 a day! Better get cracking...

April
Everyone at my son's school has got used to seeing me arrive reading a different book each day, and I have got through all 94. I am sharing my reading with novelist Kate Mosse (not the supermodel, as I had first believed), journalist Matthew Parris, Oxford University physiology professor Frances Ashcroft and Margaret Drabble, who is chairing our judging. Having read in isolation for the past four weeks, we are all bursting to share our likes and dislikes. We cut the books down to a long list of 12 for deeper reading. Have to look beyond the covers now.

May
A wonderful meeting. It is beginning to feel like an episode from Channel 4's The Book Group. We each bring a completely different perspective to our reading, but there is a genuine feeling of camaraderie emerging. Today's meeting comes with some responsibility because we will go public with our shortlist of six. There is horse-trading between the scientists and non-scientists about what constitutes real and readablescience. Consequently, we have not been able to shortlist many great books.

June 25, 1.15pm
Today is the last meeting of our book club. We spin out the decision for as long as we can, but it quickly becomes clear which book we love most. We know our choice will be against everyone's expectations: Steven Pinker is the bookie's favourite. But Chris McManus' Right Hand, Left Hand is a beautiful celebration of asymmetry in the universe. Even so, we are almost swayed to pick Pinker by a newspaper article asserting that he should not win because he uses curling tongs. When I talk to McManus in the evening, he admits he almost put the £1,000 he was guaranteed as a shortlisted author on Pinker to win so that he would at least double his money. Bet he was glad he didn't.

11pm
It is slightly strange to be leaving theScience Museum after the dinner and prize-giving. My own attempt to bring maths to the masses - The Music of the Primes - is due to be published next month by Fourth Estate.

Next year it could be my book that a judge will be pulling out of those boxes. I have at least learnt that there are many excellent books that never make the shortlist.

I reward myself with an order from Amazon full of trashy novels. Despite all the wonderful stories contained in those 94 books, I cannot wait to escape the magical world of muggle science and plunge into potions at Hogwarts.


Marcus du Sautoy is professor of mathematics at Oxford University.

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