As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
I learned this math-infused, deceptively simple poem—first published 290 years ago—when I was in primary school. I couldn’t solve it then; I couldn’t solve it now, five decades later, without Googling it.
They say the mathematically inclined can see the Fibonacci sequence in the spirals of a sunflower or a honeycomb of bees. The poetically inclined, on the other hand, can marvel maybe in the magic of math in lines of verse or stanzas that rhyme.
That’s the premise of a fascinating book, “Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature” by Sarah Hart. Dr. Hart is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of London and one of only five female math professors under 40 in the UK. This book is for you if you’re mathematically and/or poetically inclined.
But then, why bother to read anything? Three reasons:
One, to arrest the rapidly declining habit of reading books. “I am a part of everything that I have read,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US President, in 1900. Fast-forward 120 years and the trashy cacophony that passes as political debate in many countries reflects the lack of finesse that can come from only reading what’s dished out on social media.
Two, to inculcate the habit of reading in your children and grandchildren so they can think beyond what’s currently showing on TikTok, Twitter, WhatsApp, or WeChat. Mark Twain, the talented American author, declared 150 years ago that “one who does not read has no advantage over one who cannot read.” And the venerable Confucius advised some 2,400 years ago that “no matter how busy you think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to chosen ignorance.”
And three, to resolve to read a book a week from World Book Day (April 23), the death anniversary of William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. “I believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book,” says JK Rowling. Magic happened to her when her books catapulted her from penury to prosperity; she’s now worth US$1 billion. Magic can happen with you, because as British author Samuel Johnson wrote 300 years ago: “A writer only begins a book; a reader finishes it.”