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-- E.O. Wilson

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Martin Gardner, Again

Vintage Martin Gardner....

Recently finished reading Martin Gardner's last book (2009), another one of his compendiums of previously-published essays entitled, "When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish." I won't do a full review, because readers here already know that any Gardner volume is in my view "A" material, and his essay anthologies, in particular, are slam-dunks (I consider them desserts for the lay science reader, from one of the greatest 20th century thinkers and essayists America has produced). And this volume delights as well, even if one has already previously read most of these pieces in their prior venues.

My one and only teensy beef with Gardner's works are that his book and essay titles are often poorly/weakly chosen, very uninspiring, and even (unfortunately) I think a potential turn-off to new readers! In this particular case the odd title comes from the title of one of the essays in the volume, which in turn comes from a line in a famous piece of poetry/verse, but hardly a title I think that will attract fresh audience.

For anyone who has never read Martin Gardner this is not a bad volume to start with, as in typical fashion he criss-crosses a wide range of subjects in his unpredictable manner (from reading one essay, you can never guess what might be coming in the next essay). There is one chapter of essays on mathematical topics and another on logic, but for readers phobic of such subjects, they are not too heavy, and the other chapters are on politics, religion, literature, and science, exhibiting as always Gardner's amazing breadth of thought and erudition, in short, highly-readable and insightful prose.

Subject matter ranges from Anne Coulter to Isaac Newton (where else in publishing might you find that range!), from G.K. Chesterton to Richard Roberts (evangelist) to Frank Tipler (physicist), to Immanuel Kant, to poetry, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Wizard of Oz. Gardner's forthright (blunt?) opinions on those thinkers or thoughts he finds insufferable are entertaining to read. And as one of the most vocal and incisive "skeptics" of the 20th century (who was often presumed to be a secular humanist), many will find Gardner's 'confessional' chapter, "Why I am Not an Atheist," (originally written almost 30 years ago) on theism or fideism especially intriguing in this day of best-selling non-belief treatises.

This would not be among my favorite anthologies of Gardner's output, but it is a perfectly enjoyable one, and as I say, a straightforward introduction to Gardner's style and approach for anyone unfamiliar with him... and truly, no thinking person should be unfamiliar with him. He is an American gem.

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