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Books: a self-assessment

Authors and readers don't always agree on their best books

In a recent article for the Guardian, maths superstar Matt Parker picked out what he regarded as five of the best 'popular maths' books ever written.  I was surprised and flattered to discover that one of them was Why Do Buses Come In Threes?, the book I wrote with my old friend Jeremy Wyndham in 1998.

Part of my surprise was that if you were to ask me which of the books I've written I am most proud of, Buses wouldn't be top of my list.  Perhaps that's because there's a tendency to be be more satisfied with your more recent work than things you did early in your career, but I've always been taken aback by how many people - including some seriously academic mathematicians - enjoyed and were influenced by Buses.  Maybe what made it stand out was that it addressed maths very differently from other books that were around at that time, particularly in connecting maths to everyday life.

This got me into some personal reflection.  Sometimes we produce things that we think are good, or not so good, and then discover that other people feel differently about them.  Which is more important, the view of the reader or of the author?  I suppose it's a bit of both.  Anyway, for what it's worth, I thought I'd rank the books that I've written or co-written that are my personal favourites.

Here are my top five, in reverse order:

(5) How Many Socks Make A Pair? This was my first solo maths book, and contains many of my favourite examples of counter-intuitive everyday maths, including dragon curves and the football-bunting puzzle which have been staples of my school talks ever since.  I wanted to call the book 'Ah, Aha and Haha' but was outvoted by the publisher.  They were probably right.

(4) What Is A Googly? My introduction to cricket for newcomers. This was my first book, but I think it has largely stood the test of time.  I did an updated version in 2019.

(3) Maths for Mums and Dads.  Written with Mike Askew, it felt like we were addressing a real need, and from feedback it was clear that this book genuinely helped a lot of parents to cope with their children's primary school maths concerns.

(2) Maths On The Back of An Envelope.  I think this is the most important book that I've written.  Back-of-envelope maths is a vital life skill that is largely overlooked by the school curriculum.

(1) Much Ado About Numbers.  Of all the books I've written, this one has given me the most pleasure, not least because it came about through pure serendipity.  I immersed myself in research for two years and at times I felt like I was exploring a side of Shakespeare that nobody had looked at before, which is quite something in such a crowded field. The end result is exactly what I had in mind when I embarked on the project.