a literary numbers lessons

Time to rewind to the end of July. This is the post I would have written last week had I had the time.

On the last Saturday of July, I went to my first book club meeting. It makes it sound incredibly formal to call it a “meeting” but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to call it. It was actually very casual: we (a group of about nine people plus dog) sat around a big table eating pizza while chatting about the club’s book of the month.

I’d wanted to find and join book clubs before, but since I’m not a very fast reader, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up, and would end up skipping a lot of meetings, or just giving up. The other reason I never joined one was because I was worried about getting “stuck” reading book club selections, and never having time for the books I really wanted to read.

Yet it’s always such a joy to meet other bookish people, and to have other readers to talk to about bookish things. Literary past-times tend to slip out of people’s lives once they leave school, so it’s been hard to find other bookish people (with similar tastes).

I was delighted, then, when a friend of mine — who I had not seen or talked to in several years, but with whom I randomly caught up with at the end of May to help with a fundraiser — informed me of a book club she was in. The book club assigns one book per month, alternating between fiction and non-fiction, and meets on the last week-end of each month to discuss the book. They always try to choose short books so that it’s manageable for everyone, and generally it’s something a bit outside most people’s “comfort zone”.

It sounded perfect! And so far it’s been going well.

July was a fiction month, with the bonus criteria that the protagonist had to be female. A few members made suggestions, and the book that won the vote was The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.

A story of maths,
And faltering memory,
And of warm friendships.

The book is about a woman who works for a housekeeping agency, and is tasked with looking after the home of a reclusive man. This man was a professor of mathematics until a car accident left him unable to hold more than 80 minutes of memory. He can remember everything that happened before the accident, but nothing afterwards except whatever has happened in the 80 minutes immediately preceding the moment he is in.

It’s an interesting concept, exploring the profound impact of memory deficiency. The housekeeper enters his life many years after the accident, so a lot has happened, and many things have changed. But, every morning, when the professor wakes up, he believes he’s in a world twenty-odd years ago. He’s oblivious to changes in government, technological advancements, and changes to the players on his favourite baseball team.

Nameless characters:
Professor, housekeeper, Root.
Intriguing maths tale.

The housekeeper has a ten-year-old son who the professor nicknames Root because his hair is flat like the square-root symbol. This is the closest any of the characters get to having a name. I was actually about halfway through the book before I stopped and thought, “Hold on… no one in this story has a name.”

It reminds me of the way Haruki Murakami wrote Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. (I was genuinely delighted to discover that some of the other book club members also read Murakami.) I read somewhere that Murakami intentionally didn’t give names to any of the characters because he didn’t want names to influence readers’ perceptions of the characters. I wonder if Yoko Ogawa was thinking the same thing.

Smooth intertwining,
Superstition and logic,
Added together.

I know it’s not an absolute division, but in school and life in general, there seems to be a dichotomy between maths and English. Those who excel in and thoroughly enjoy mathematics tend to have much less enthusiasm for English, and vice versa. It was interesting, then, to see so many mathematical concepts incorporated into this novel (which is obviously a literary thing).

The professor is very fond of prime numbers, but also teaches the housekeeper and her son about other numerical phenomena such as amicable numbers and perfect numbers. I’m pretty sure logarithms get a mention somewhere in the book too. It’s lucky that I’m fascinated by both words and numbers, but I wonder how the prominence of numbers affects the story for those not so numerically-inclined. I mean, I got a bit lost when they were talking about baseball (I’m not a baseball fan), and it’s probably the only thing I didn’t really enjoy about the story.

The other peculiar contrast is that of maths and superstition. Mathematics has a reputation of being very logical and rigid, whereas superstition tends to be arbitrary and have minimal (if any) scientific basis. But the professor, as absorbed as he is in the world of numbers, also comes across as highly superstitious. When he learns that the housekeeper’s birthdate is an amicable number with the serial number of his watch, he points this out as something significant. And let’s not get started on baseball numbers and statistics…

Overall, The Housekeeper and the Professor was an interesting book, and a fun start to my book club experience. I’m making good progress on the August book, while still reading a book of my own choosing, so it’s looking promising!

2 thoughts on “a literary numbers lessons

  1. That sounds like a super book! The club I’m in chooses a theme at the beginning of the year. Each month, a different member does a report on the book they chose to fit the theme. So we’re all free to read anything we want, but we get exposed to a different book/author every month.

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