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The Genius in my Basement Hardcover – 1 Sep 2011
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About the Author
Alexander Masters’ first book, ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’, was a Sunday Times bestseller and the winner of the Guardian First Book Award. He currently lives in Norfolk.
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Simon is a fascination: he's a stereotype of a mathematical prodigy. Since his mind exists in places that the rest of us cannot comprehend in the slightest, is it fair of anyone to criticise him for his hair, his bus and train journeys and his squalid living conditions?
His classmates at school should read this book with shame and then be forced to live on nothing but cabbage for five years.
The traditionalists at Cambridge University who made him repeat two years' worth of work need to be made to repent too. Simon had already earned a first from London University so who are the clowns at Cambridge to insist that a man such as Simon be pegged back?
I found the many attempts at explaining group theory rather tedious. I understood what Masters said the first and second times. After that it was flummery and I gained nothing.
It was a gift that Simon lived in a mess because by being encouraged to tidy up, he reminded himself of bits of his life via bus tickets, railway time tables and do on. We all keep junk but Simon ...!
Isn't it fascinating that a serial genius can be a bus and train campaigner: someone who voluntarily is equally likely to want to ride on the bus from Todmorden to Halifax as I am to want to fly first class from Bangkok to Mexico City! Moreover, to make such journeys with passion. And so many of them.
As with Stuart, I got the impression that Masters was rather familiar with his subject and whilst that often worked in our favour, I did find at times that I sided with the subject rather than the author.
Good luck to Simon and everything he does.
Good luck to Masters and I am keenly awaiting his next biography, due out early in 2016 I think.
The format of the book - plentiful cartoons, an initial focus on the strangeness of the mathematician's life, even 'facts' that are corrected later in the book (he got 50 alphas in his finals; he got 13 alphas in his finals) - all make for an irritating read.
And yet...as the book wears on, we do understand something of what makes the mathematician tick (what it is like to have extreme male brain in the terms of Simon Baron Cohen), something of the mathematics that interest him, and why he is unemployed and a campaigner for public transport. 'Something of' is the operative word. Did Simon have a breakdown in 1985 brought on by the abrupt move of his mathematical mentor to the US? Did he run out of steam and not recover his genius (he makes a first calculation error around about then)? Or is he just as good as he ever was? (He still writes papers and addresses conferences). The authors doesn't know, and nor do we.
And the book prompts profound reflections on life. Simon has an unusual endowment (presumably genetically or at least in terms of his brain functioning). He faces the same challenges we all face: how to make his way through the world on the basis of his endowment. His mathematical gift is enough to live off it, with enjoyment, for many years. When, for whatever reason, it ceases to see him through, he has a brother to support him and an inheritance from his parents - and he can campaign for public transport, which he also finds greatly rewarding. He is probably hopeless at campaigning for public transport - or at best mediocre. BUT he IS a happy man...
So: on the one hand very strongly recommended - on the other, but with some reservations!
The problem is that the story is told as probably how Masters discovered it. But that is not always the best way to tell a story. In this case it is certainly the most tedious way.
I'd like to learn more about Simon's life, but not by having to wade through descriptions of bus and train journeys and the rubbish in Simon's flat. It simply is not interesting.
The chapters about group theory are interesting, but not enough to sustain a whole book.
I'm not fool enough to fall for the sunk investment fallacy, so I'm giving up here.
("Stuart" by the same author, on the other hand was a page turner)
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