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Mathematical Writing
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I do not know for how long had this book been on my list of thing to read, but I recently found time to dive into it and read it like a thriller, almost adoring every word. Mathematical Writing [tex.loria.fr, .pdf], by Donald Knuth, Tracy Larrabee and Paul Roberts.

Beside being quite a good presentation of how to best write mathematics (I was happy both to learn a couple of things I didn't know or had overlooked, but also to realize that my natural way to write already had all the good wisdom, maybe a side effect of my education), this book taught me more about Donald Knuth that I would never have dreamt to know. But, cherry on the cake, it is written in a style that I had never seen before: written by a student of Knuth, the book mainly consists in telling the story of a course, lecture by lecture, from the student point of view.

The book has no many anecdotes, stories and other little delights that I will probably read it again, at some point in the future, for the pleasure of smiling again :-)

Below, one of my favorite extracts



Before moving on to the next handout, Don told us about writing his book Surreal Numbers. Like Leslie Lamport's paper ("A simple approach to specifying concurrent systems"), Don's book is presented as a dialog. Don's dialog presents some ideas that John Conway told him at lunch one day (Don wrote the ideas down on a napkin and then lost the napkin). The most extraordinary aspect of this book is that Don wrote it in six days ("And then I rested"). That week was very special for Don. ("It was the most exciting week in my life. I don't think I can ever recapture it.")

When Don wrote the book he was in Norway. He was in the middle of writing one of the volumes of The Art of Computer Programming (isn't he always?), and he did not expect Jill (his wife) to be sympathetic when he told her that he wanted to write yet another book -- even if he did think he could write it in a week. Perhaps Jill knows more about Don than Don knows about Jill, because she not only didn't complain but she got quite into the spirit of the thing. Just what was the spirit of the thing? "Intellectual whimsey" probably isn't far off. Don rented a hotel room ("near where Ibsen wrote") and spent his week writing, taking long walks ("to get my head clear"), eavesdropping on his fellow hotel guests at breakfast ("so I could hear what dialog really sounds like"), and pretending that Jill's visits were clandestine ("we had always read about people having affairs in hotels").

Don said he wrote "with a muse on my shoulder." Every night's sleep was filled with ideas and solutions; before dozing off he would have to get up and write down the first letter of every word of the ideas he had (and he would spend the morning decoding these cryptic scribbles). He told us that he was more perceptive during this week -- his description of the King's Garden during an evening walk was worthy of Timothy Leary.

All this prolific word production must have left him in verbal debt: When he finished the book he tried to write a letter to Phyllis telling her how to type the book. He couldn't. Except he must have eventually -- the book is still in print and sells several hundred copies a year (in seven languages).

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