The books that follow are personal favorites that have provided special inspiration over the years.  Following the nature of the blog, they come from many different fields and offer some wonderful insights into the phrase we call “human existence”.

1.  MAGIC OF NUMBER by E.T.Bell.  This book is a delightful foray into the world of numbers.  Much easier to read than his well-known, Men of Mathematics,  Bell brings to life the central figures of Greek mathematics.  He pays especial focus to Pythagoras and his teachings, and their reverberations in modern times.  The book is tongue-in-cheek, droll, and full of anecdotes, which provides for an entertaining and invigorating read.  Bell describes number and the Pythagoreans as follows:  “Virtue to the highly imaginative Pythagoreans was one number, vice another; and the elusive concepts of the True, the Beautiful, the Good were sublimated into “Ideal Numbers” by no less a metaphysician than Plato.  And if it seems strange that Pythagoras should have believed that love and marriage are governed by numbers, we have but to observe the like today.”   One of my favorite quotations:  “Instead of Number being in essence discrete, like a handful of pebbles, it was now essentially a continuum, like the atmosphere as reported by the senses.  In this inseparable and uncountable whole the natural numbers and all other rational numbers were more sparsely scattered than the stars against the black of midnight.”  

2. GROOKS 1-7, by Piet Hein, if you can find them.  The Grooks are the invention of the remarkable Dane, Piet Hein.  They are aphorisms with multiple meanings that are accompanied by drawings.  One of my favorites is:  “We leave wisdom to starve and thirst if we cultivate knowledge as such.  The very best turns to the very worst when ignorants know too much.”

3. WHAT IS LIFE? and MIND AND MATTER, by Erwin Schrodinger.  To put it bluntly, this book changed my life.  When I was seventeen, I visited the University of Oregon bookstore, and picked up this amazing book.  I’ve always had great respect for any book published by Cambridge University Press, but this study by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger gave me joy I never dreamed of.  For the first time, some of the questions I had regarding links between biology, physics, and life were being addressed and discussed.  I lived with this book, and pondered it’s insights.  As a result, I became quite interested in the philosophy of science, purchased books on the subject, and took courses at USC and UCLA.  Grandma and I spent many an evening thinking about some of Schrodinger’s ideas.  His concept of mutation made its way into my early short story, “In the Name of Progress.”  I cannot recommend this volume too highly.  His book, My View of the World, is also recommended for the writer’s candid feelings and thoughts, filtered through his Vedanta teachings.

4. PRECIOUS STONES AND OTHER CRYSTALS by Rudolf Metz.  The book was conceived by Dr. Ernst Peterson, who wanted to introduce readers to the beauty of minerals.   The work is a translation from German. published by The Viking  Press in 1964.  A veritable treasure trove of unique photos displaying mineral beauty, this was a book I looked at again and again when I was a young teenager to dispel boredom before our summer Oregon trip.  I remember viewing the magnificent photo of sulfur crystals and now own a classic from Sicily.  That was enough to spur my interest in mineralogy, and take it to another level.  The book made me more curious than ever about the awe-inspiring forms of the natural world.  As a result of my curiosity, I was privileged to interview Dr. George Rossman of the California Institute of Technology about minerals, their forms, and creation.  Interested readers may find this interview by clicking on The Mineralogical Record link, and going to Axis.  It can also be found in my book, THE MAGICIANS OF FORMlocated on the page MY PUBLICATIONS.


5.  MAN THE MEASURE, by Erich Kahler.  This book was recommended by no less a personage than Einstein himself:  “…  I will not feel that I have finished this book before having pondered every line in it.”  This book of European history was originally written in 1943.  The author did not know how World War II would end.  Kahler provides an analysis of the development of Western religion from its earliest days, and finishes with a chapter, “The Kingdom of Man”.  He shows considerable insight into the Nazi movement, and the rise of technology.  In other books Kahler actually anticipated what collectivization would mean for modern man, and art in particular.  Erich Kahler was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.  He was primarily a historian, but had a strong interest in literature as testified by his book, The Orbit of Thomas Mann.  Thomas Mann himself had nothing but the highest praise for Kahler’s work.  His highly controversial study, The Disintegration of Form in the Arts, is definitely worth a read.

6. OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL PROGRAMS(1948-1975), if you can locate them.   These programs show how the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland got started, and who were the major forces behind it.  It shows the special relationship that developed between Stanford University and Southern Oregon College.  Dr. Margery Bailey of Stanford was instrumental in establishing the educational program.  She came up with the idea of the Tudor Guild to provide scholarships to worthy theater students, and became the Director of Education.  It is noteworthy that at one time, Stanford students could get credit by taking one of the Shakespeare courses at SOC.  Actors such as Stacy Keach, Richard Cavett, George Peppard, and Theodore Marcuse performed on the Elizabethan stage.  Inspired by his mentor at the University of Washington, B. Iden Payne,  festival founder and director, Angus Bowmer, performed Shakespeare in rapid speech and action.  He was the first in the U.S. to perform Shakespeare on an authentic style Elizabethan stage.  For more on the history of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, please read Angus Bowmer’s book, As I Remember, Adam.  The book discusses the many struggles and successes that led to the establishment of the Festival.

7.  THE SCIENCE STUDY SERIES(any of the distinguished volumes that make up this series).  The SSS was an attempt by the American government to improve scientific knowledge nationwide by providing books at a low cost, written by experts in their respective fields, but still accessible to the general public.  It was a time of the Cold War and sputnik, and great efforts were made by the government to try to raise scientific and mathematical standards.  The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, the CHEM Study, the Physical Science Study Committee, and the School Mathematics Study Group reflected such efforts.  It was the PSSC that initiated The Science Study Series. which began in 1956.  It includes topics from probability to crystallography.  From geology to astronomy.  To read more about this fascinating endeavor, please look at the section Projects For You.

8.  GLORIA RUSSAKOV’S GUIDE TO OREGON RESTAURANTS.  Granted, this book is almost forty years old, prices are no longer valid, and many restaurants no longer exist.  However, if you’re looking for an entertaining, light read, this book is for you.  The author’s descriptions of Oregon restaurants are never boring, but whimsical and fun.  You can’t wait to read comments about the next restaurant.  And if you know the restaurant, so much the better!  Enjoy this lighthearted book!

9. THE STORY OF A STONE or DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER, by Cao Xueqin.  This is a splendid novel about the rise and fall of the Jia family in eighteenth century China.  The Jias were Textile Commissioners with strong ties to the imperial court.  The story concerns the adventures of cousins Bao-Yu and Dai-Yu.  The author was placed with his twelve girl cousins in a garden, and had a rare opportunity to observe female psychology in depth.  The author also takes particular pleasure in detailed descriptions of objects, especially types of clothes.

One of the novel’s famous episodes concerns the construction of a garden for a visitor from the palace in the first volume.  The garden is both a landscape and a vision:  “The fallen blossoms seemed to be even more numerous and the waters on whose surface they floated even more limpid than they had been on the side they had just come from.  The weeping willows which lined both banks were here and there diversified with peach and apricot trees whose interlacing branches made little worlds of stillness and serenity beneath them.”  Translated by David Hawkes

It certainly helps if the reader has some familiarity with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism for they appear as threads throughout the novel.  The strict Confucian tenets mingle with the magic of Taoism and the self- denial of worldly goods and temptations of Buddhism.

It has been published in English by Penguin in five volumes and 120 chapters with a translation by David Hawkes.  The first 80 chapters are definitely by the author, but there is evidence that the last 40 were written by a friend of the family.  The names of all characters are listed at the back, and there is a genealogy of the major families.   Although close to 2500 pages, it is worth reading as it is one of the outstanding novels in world literature, and provides a panoramic view of all levels of Chinese society in the 18th century.  In particular, it depicts the rise and fall of the Jia family, and introduces Wang Xi-Feng, an unforgettable personality.    It is readily available.

10. VERNA FELTON by Fredrick Turner.  This is probably the best book ever written about a character actress.  The scholarship is impeccable.  It is a gold mine of photos that capture the subject’s life and times in vivid detail.  His background as an amateur genealogist  serves Turner well as he delves not only into Verna’s life, but virtually all the people who were a part of her life as well.  The book has numerous digressions, which may interrupt the narrative flow, but are fascinating in their own right.  We know Verna as the kindly fairy godmother of Disney’s Cinderella, Aunt Sarah in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, and the good fairy Flora in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  Some of us remember her as Hilda Crocker in the 50s television program, December Bride, a precursor of Golden Girls.  But as Turner relates, Verna was so much more.  Her work in small theaters in the U.S. and Canada, her relationship with neighborhood children, her zest for life, all are depicted clearly in this encyclopedic volume.  “What’s in a child will come out.  True, there are many stage children who are artificial, but I think that this artificiality would manifest itself in any walk of life.  I can’t get away from instinct, breeding, and training.”–Verna Felton.  Try picking it up.  You might find answers to some of your questions about other character actors.


11.  LEWIS CARROLL:  A BIOGRAPHY by Morton N. Cohen.  This is my favorite biography, and one of my desert island books.  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a multi-faceted genius who astounded in many fields.  He is now considered the finest children’s photographer of the 19th century.  He was a superb logician who anticipated many problems of modern mathematics.  He was probably the greatest children’s writer ever, and his Alice books have inspired a veritable library of interpretive criticism.  He has been the darling and inspiration for numerous illustrators.  In writing his classics, he opened a world of myth that has never been equaled.  When Alice went down the rabbit hole, so did mankind, gaining a finer appreciation of itself through satire, games, puzzles, and inverted logic.  Charles had keen insight into the psychology of girls, and, despite his extreme rigidity, could entertain them for hours, showing them his photographic room and taking them on outings.  In short, Charles was an extremely complex personality.  Does Professor Cohen do justice to all the above?  He does, and illuminates each aspect of Dodgson’s life with impeccable scholarship and a sense for the English language that borders on the sublime.  However, the uniqueness of Cohen’s book lies in his use of quotations.  His quotations do not serve merely to prove a point or highlight a passage, but are worlds worthy of exploring in their own right.  What a curious quotation from Charles this is:  “…It is rather painful to see the lovely simplicity of childhood so soon rubbed off:  but I fear it is true that there are no children in America.”  Cohen’s fascinating book is a model of what biography writing should be about, and should be on every scholar’s bookshelf.


12.  THE EDUCATION OF T.C.MITS (THE CELEBRATED MAN IN THE STREET) by Lillian R. Lieber, Drawings by Hugh Gray Lieber.  The Liebers were a husband and wife team that wrote a series of books showing the ties between mathematics, art, science and society.  They emphasized the importance of mathematical reasoning again and again as a means of coping with ambiguity and downright lies.  The Liebers wrote each phrase in large letters on a separate line to facilitate reading.  Hugh’s drawings not only illustrate concepts, but provide much to explore and reflect on.

The photo of the cover below shows a “totem pole” composed of five regular solids:  CUBE, ICOSAHEDRON, OCTAHEDRON, DODECAHEDRON, TETRAHEDRON.  Each of the solids represents a floor of knowledge, starting with the CUBE as the first floor.  This floor contains scientific instruments.  The second floor is for experimentation and invention.  The third floor is for scientists who do “pure science.”  The fourth floor is for individuals involved in applied mathematics.  And the fifth floor(the top floor) is for those that do “pure mathematics.”  The Liebers link pure mathematicians to modern artists in that their work may not have any practical application, but they represent creative thinking.  However, even on the top floor, mathematicians encounter the limits of human reason.  As the Liebers say, ” What is the nature of a “proof” by human beings for human beings?”  And:  “What are we humans anyway?  What is the best we can expect of ourselves?”  This special volume attempts to answer both questions.

Note:  In August 2017, Dover Publications  reprinted Take A Number by the Liebers.


13. NUMBER:  THE LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE by Tobias Dantzig.  I can do no better than to quote Albert Einstein:  This is beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics which has ever fallen into my hands.”  And so it is.  Dantzig argues that man alone possesses a counting facility that is  different from the number concept that many other species possess.  He writes that, “The genesis of number is hidden behind the impenetrable veil of countless prehistoric ages.”  Dantzig poses questions throughout his work that try to break through the mystery of number development.  The Greeks for all their knowledge could not conceive of zero and so omitted it in their discussion of numbers.  Dantzig states that it is only through India that zero entered the number system and was accepted by the Arabs in their cultivation of algebra.  He moves on from numbers to explore the rational foundation of mathematics.  “A mathematical proposition is true if it leads to no logical contradiction, false otherwise.  The method of deduction is based on the principle of contradiction and nothing else.” Dantzig does not neglect problems with the number line and the infinite.  He comments occasionally on man’s place in the universe.  In short, this is a classic text on the number concept and its evolution and can be read several times with renewed insights.


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