Alexander Masters

Reading, writing and arithmetic – the glorious interrelation of maths and literature

Sarah Hart discusses the Oulipo group, Jorge Luis Borges and Eleanor Catton among other writers who have explored the use of mathematics in their works

‘Idiom’, the installation in Prague created by the Slovak artist Matej Krén – consisting of a mere 8,000 books [Alamy]

There are lots of reasons why non-scientists should be forced to study mathematics, but it’s hard to see why mathematicians should bother with literature. Literature is part of the entertainment industry: emotional manipulation, crippled by cheap assertions and hollow arguments. Maths is intellectual. Maths has rigorous standards. Literature hides guff under its pretty phrases.

Hart discusses the statistical challenges for the Oulipo group and their refusal to use the letter ‘e’ in thir clvr novls

Sarah Hart, a professor of mathematics, wants us to see literature and mathematics as the ancients did – mutually supportive, central elements of a rounded education. 

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