Comments on e-books

There were several responses to my e-books blog post, so I will share them here.   Thanks all!


  • Matilde Marcolli says:

    Certainly the current formats of ebooks are not suitable for mathematical content: apart from some horrible debacles with completely unreadable formulas on kindle (and other) ebook readers (on hugely expensive ebooks), it is not just the problem of properly displaying readable formulas and diagrams. Mathematics book have an important 3-dimensional nature, where one continuously needs to jump back and forth between a lot of different points in the book: something extremely easy to do with a print copy and an impossible nightmare on an ebook that is designed to linearly read a novel from first to last page. I don’t think print format will have a better replacement soon for mathematical content. That said, I personally often accompany the print copy I have of a book with a simple (and cheap) PDF file that is searchable, so I can search on the file and then I read and work back and forth on the paper copy.

  • Steve Ferry says:

    I like e books. Being an old guy, the backlighting, high contrast, and ability to adjust the type size are important to me. It is helpful if the reader allows one to page quickly back and forth through the text. Being able to print a few pages at a time would also be a big help. I don’t see the need for video widgetry in advanced texts.

  • David Fisher says:

    I do read math books in electronic format sometimes, but always as pdf or djvu on my ipad and not on my kindle. I agree with Matilde that none of this quite reproduces the high dimensional experience of reading a physical book, but the ipad is so much closer than the kindle. But I don’t know how singular this is to math books as opposed to academic reading more generally. Certainly I have heard many horrified and disdainful conversations about kindles and ebooks among English professors.

    But unless mathematicians stop travelling so much, ebooks are a part of our present and our future. I don’t have the talent for it, but I hope someone who does designs a better math ebook. I imagine a revolution of reading mathematics of roughly the same order as TeX was a revolution for the writing of it. I can’t imagine specifics, but I hope it comes soon.

  • Barbara says:

    I agree with Matilde that the current ebook technology still cannot compare with an actual book, for the reasons listed; at the same time ebooks have changed our lives for the better since we’re no longer limited to what we can carry on our backs when traveling.
    It is my hope that future ebooks will be available which allow one to easily keep notes and switch back-and forth. I also think computer-like screens aren’t good for reading; what we need is something kindle-like but 4 times larger area wise (it’s no use being able to enlarge the character if then you have to squint at one quarter of the commutative diagram at a time).

    As for interaction, I think we’ll move to being able to add notes and put them online, so that people who are confused (something that happens to me a lot!) can click and see what others have to say. This is something I found useful already as a student, when the same effect was achieved by pencil remarks on the margin of the library copy.

    I also think that David Fisher’s comparison with TeX is true in another important sense: mathematicians use books like no one else. If we want a system which is tailored to our needs, we will have to build it ourselves. I think the AMS and its sisters societies can play a very important role in this.

  •  Robert Ghrist says:

    i have been working for two years on how to make a math e-book that is readable, since, as you note, kindle math books aren’t really working.

    i’ve come up with an approach that i think works. the good news is that it takes full advantage of the color space, form factor, and dynamics possible on a phone/tablet. the bad news is that it’s not compiled, and requires a lot of fine-detail manual positioning. also, it took a year just to get the fonts right, and they are as yet far from perfect.

    i’m 1200+ pages into this project, resulting in three e-books on multivariable calculus. you can see the latest entry here at the kindle store & use the “look inside feature”. but, really, it looks so much crisper on a good phone.

    rob ghrist, math, upenn

    ps: i’ve talked with folks at amazon about how to adapt the kindle platform more to the needs of math e-books. they were polite, but not really ready to move into that space yet from what i can tell.


    Curtis McMullen says:

    September 10, 2016 at 7:26 pm (Edit)

    E-books can be very useful to undergraduate students. I am currently teaching a course on “Sets, Groups and Knots”, and there was homework during “shopping period”, while students were still deciding which courses to take. E-books allowed them both to get an idea of the course and to do the first reading and homework without having to buy the books.



Posted in Academic Book Publishing, Mathematics, Readers, Social Impact, Technology Trends | 1 Comment

Personal webpages as publications

Thanks to those of you who commented on my previous post on ebooks. This conversation brings home to me that what will drive substantial math ebook innovation (apart from simply making existing math books readable on electronic devices) will be a joint work between mathematicians, programmers (and possibly publishers to egg them on) that anticipates accurately the way math students and researchers will want to write and read.  It may be the kind of change that will happen solely from within mathematics, perhaps in small steps.

In my memory, the steps leading to the advent of email and tex were rapid.  Some of you  remember the 1980s when email and tex were just coming into common use. I had friends whose primary job was technical typing for mathematics faculty, and I still wrote handwritten letters to friends and family, something I have not done in decades. It seems that before we knew it email and tex became commonplace in mathematics, and as I understand it both  developed rather organically with mathematicians playing a large role.

A similarly extraordinary, though much more subtle, transformation in our way of lives is happening (has happened?) as a result of personal webpages.  Although universities have standardized faculty webpages, most math faculty have their own personal ones, and they have become increasingly significant and indispensable to the way mathematicians function socially, culturally, and practically.

Personal webpages have become vital sources of open access information that is for the most part non-monitored and free form; and because there are few rules governing them, they are also expressions of a mathematician’s individuality.  If one wants to know something about a particular person, one can glean a lot from their webpage and what and how they choose to present.  The page is at once personal and public, and I cannot think of anything that existed pre-internet that played the same role.   Some are stark and minimal, while others have rather highly developed narratives; some include images, moving gifs, links, and computer programs in addition to the invaluable list of publications, vita and teaching information. Personal webpages have become a sort of publication that combines the fun of personality and self-expression with the ability to present a swath of convenient and useful content connected to the author’s activities, interests, and work.

The use of personal webpages by mathematicians has grown to the point that they have become regular “go to” resources for mathematicians to find lecture notes, teaching ideas, theorems, and software.  Contrast this to the  80s (my personal reference point) when students and researchers spent a lot more time in libraries than we do now.  As older readers of this blog will remember: we used to search through indexes of heavy volumes of Mathematical Reviews to find out what was known about a given topic and where to find the articles; then we’d search through the stacks and shelves of identically bound journals to find the correct year and volume number; and once we found the article we would carry the heavy book over to a desk and read awkwardly over the lumps made on the open page by the huge binding, or if we wanted to make the contents portable, we would head to the copy machine hoping we remembered to bring coins.   During my last move, I threw away almost two filing cabinets worth of xeroxed papers, that I previously did not have the heart to dispose of though most of the articles are now a snap to find online.

I see the good and bad sides of the ways of the past and now.  The time it took to do what is so easy now was also time to think slowly, which is usually a good thing.   Now, if one knows who the author is, one can usually simply go to their webpage.  From there one can look at references of their papers and search on to other webpages.    In the meantime, one may make unexpected discoveries, or if one is not careful, one might even stray onto a new tangent.  The journey now is potentially quicker but is more sedentary.  One interacts with fewer people, but is exposed to more personal expression.  What we have lost in terms of walking and lifting, we have gained in  a better passing acquaintance with the people we are citing.

It would seem that the electronic book question is really part of a much bigger question about the relation between technology and information , and creativity and expression. One of the exciting things about mathematics is that at the frontiers of the subject, there is a continual rethinking and creating of “tools” and “pathways” for communication. Unlike in experimental science, to “show” someone what one has discovered, one can only rely on language and symbols, and a feature of mathematicians is not only that they solve deep and difficult problems, but that they develop ways to take others there, by expressing complicated ideas in enlightening and simple ways.  It is natural that mathematicians will use all the means of communicating ideas at their disposal: through teaching directly, through writing, through programing, and consciously or unconsciously through their personal webpages.

Grothendieck-Serre Correspondence, Bilingual Edition.   2001

cgs-covGetting a view into the personalities of mathematicians can be fascinating and fun, and two of the most interesting personalities in mathematics are Grothendieck and Serre.  This book contains letters sent between these two mathematical giants from 1955 to 1987 in the original French with a translation into English.





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Books: Hard Copy or E-?

How important are e-books for math?  I always start a blog with one question, and end up asking many more.

People according to their personality, their intentions, limitations and environments read differently.   Even when there were only hard copy books, I remember noting the different ways my fellow math graduate students read math books.  Some had a habit of reaching for a math book for bedtime reading.  To me, truly reading meant sitting at a desk or table, notebook and pen in hand, scribbling and drawing as I read. Others I knew sat perfectly still while reading, hardly moving a muscle for hours.  Some read while listening to music, and one person I knew even played piano while reading.

By now, most avid readers (particularly of non-technical books) are familiar with kindles and other e-readers. They are about the same size and weight of a paperback; you can turn pages with roughly the same movement; you can resize fonts, look up words you don’t know with an easy click;  many have their own light source; and most of all there is no weight difference between the data of one book and that of hundreds or thousands of them.   These qualities alone attract even diehard proponents of paper books, especially those who are frequent travelers.

But the popularity and availability of e-books and e-readers for mathematics lags behind.  What more can and should E-books offer, particularly in math?   Are we taking enough advantage of current technological capabilities?  Is there a need to specifically treat the particular nature of mathematics exposition?  Should we have moving graphics, and built-in software that help illustrate the material, perhaps with interactive feature?  What about making it possible for classes and reading groups to share comments online while reading a text?

Books are a medium for packaging and communicating ideas.  Assuming that there will always be a need to record and deliver mathematical ideas using some sort of print medium, do you think math e-books are here to stay, if so in what form, and how will they affect teaching, research and individual reading habits in the years to come?

Moving Things Around by Kerins, Young, Cuoco, Stevens, and Pilgrim.sstp-5-cov

Increasingly I see books that make me wonder…what would this look like if…?  One example is a new series of books produced by the Park City Summer Program  for secondary school teachers.   These sequenced collections of problems are carefully chosen to progress future teachers toward a deeper understanding of a subject through exploration, discussion and active learning: in this particular case the topic is permutations, symmetries and numbers.  Users of the book are encouraged to experiment with computer software and to work in teams.  Could electronic media help to implement the goals of these books on a wider scale, connecting people who are unable to attend sessions like the one at Park City?


Posted in Academic Book Publishing, Innovation, Mathematics, Readers, Technology Trends | 5 Comments

Books that have left their mark

Below are the noteworthy books suggested in comments to my last post:  “Books with Longevity”.  (I could not find good photos of Grothendieck’s EGA and SGA, published by publications IHES)   Thanks for sharing them!

31XYoKNuDLL._AC_US160_      31NsWOSHhzL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  41W6uxOhk4L._AC_US160_41We8RcZgwL._AC_US160_41Ejo5VjbgL._AC_US160_41TJIGgzH-L._AC_US160_  41eB8GyAwDL._AC_US160_     41+RT8fjXsL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_      j2700      41jEXEmhDGL._AC_US160_  41WJDfaYLUL._AC_US160_41YfYhyMQoL._AC_US160_  41Tt2-K+h9L._AC_US160_ 51EKdH8E46L._AC_US160_ j2404     41QkrgV1BhL._SL75_    41nCdOM1wpL._AC_US160_      31PFTUa1khL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

The intention of any worthy math book is to communicate a collective understanding of a subject by experts to potential future practitioners, but is it just me, or is there sometimes something more personal that happens between author and reader?  Some books seem to “talk” to you.  They can make you smile for the beauty that they reveal (examples for me are David Mumford’s Lectures on Curves on an Algebraic Surface, or Emil Artin’s Galois Theory), or they can egg you on with challenging problems leading you to deeper understanding (Attiyah and MacDonald’s Introduction to Commutative Algebra comes to mind).

On a more pragmatic level, as one comment pointed out,  it is also important for books to be useful for teaching.  That will be a topic for a future post.

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Math books with longevity

What gives a math book (textbook or otherwise) longevity?   Is there more to a book than just a record of current knowledge, or an aid and reference for a class? Some books continue to be read and reread, and used over and over from one generation to another defying loss of novelty and fashion. What makes a math book great? Is it the subject matter, the presentation, the author’s personal touch or something else that keeps a book relevant over generations?

The answers to these questions may be  personal.  They could be tied up with memories of a favorite spot in the library; the music that was playing as you worked; or the people who were around you. Or perhaps there are universal qualities that make a book great.  Style, elegance, care, quirkiness, beauty, originality…what resonates most with you?

One book that continues to be relevant despite the passage of time is Knots and Links by Dale Rolfsen (AMS Chelsea Series), an introduction to knot theory and low-dimensional topology that was first published in 1976 (Publish or Perish press).   One reason for its lasting significance is that   `Rolfsen’s knot and link table’ is still commonly used to quickly identify knots and links with low crossing numbers.   But what really distinguishes the book, especially for its time, is that it facilitates (in a very effective way) active learning by emphasizing well-chosen hand-drawn illustrations and exercises over long explanations and proofs.


What book was a game-changer for you as a student?  What made/makes it special? Are there any out of print math books you would like to see republished?  Please enter your comments, and mention your favorite book!

Posted in Academic Book Publishing, American Mathematical Society, Mathematics, Readers, Research, Teaching, Technology Trends | 19 Comments

Why Books?

The purpose of this blog is to start a conversation about math books.   What makes a math book useful, important, timely, a pleasure to read?  How do books influence and shape mathematics? How does/should evolving technology change how we access books and use them in teaching and research?   When (if ever) is the right time in a mathematician’s career to write a book?

When I first thought about working at the AMS book program a little less than two years ago, I asked myself: why books? The usual thoughts ran through my mind. Who has the time to write them or even read them these days? The returns for the incredible time and effort required to complete a polished book don’t seem worth it for the active mathematician who is proving new theorems in the precious times between organizing or speaking at seminars and conferences, attending or chairing department meetings, and of course teaching. Students and researchers can get up-to-date information quickly and easily through web searches, and pdf files posted online, making books seem superfluous. Mathematical output in the form of new research articles published count for more to university administrators than do books authored.

Yet my doubts about the value of books quickly dissipate as soon as I am in a room surrounded by them. One cannot help but be impressed by the wealth of knowledge and endeavor contained in a well-written and well-edited book.  Books contain glimpses into the mind and thought processes of the mathematicians we admire and the beautiful mathematics that they bring to light.  I am reminded of what an important role textbooks play in drawing one in and opening one’s eyes to new worlds and language, teaching through thoughtful presentations and familiarizing through well-chosen examples and exercises. Research monographs are another form that appeal to me because they have the space, which journal articles don’t, for setting the stage for its subject. The voice of the writer can lead one through a mathematical journey through a rich landscape of ideas.

The worth of a mathematician’s career is often measured in the short-term by the theorems they were the first to prove, and the number of papers they publish in the best journals, but the long-term importance of a career may also be measured by the influence the mathematician had over the development of their field. This includes inviting students into the subject, giving the subject a clear place within larger movements in mathematics, and giving others glimpses into the future and the inspiration to carry the work forward. Books are convenient vehicles for this purpose: filling the gap when personal contact with the leaders of mathematics is not available, or supplementing when it is. In this way, books have the potential to resonate in unpredictable corners of the world long after they are written.

What do you value in books?   What role do they play in your research and teaching?  I invite you, the reader, to share your answers by commenting on this blog.  Suggestions for topics and contributed posts are also welcome.

Polynomial Methods in Combinatorics, by Larry Guth

ulect-64-covThis book reaches across disciplines, is accessible, and the ideas are the kind that one likes to have in one’s problem solving arsenal (read more about this book).

How to use this blog:

Comments and Suggested Topics: Please send comments and blog topic ideas using the comment entry form below.

Featured books: There will be a section at the end of each blog featuring a book (does not have to be an AMS book).  Your suggestions are very welcome!  Please include a short explanation of why you think the book is special, and epitomizes what math books are good for.

AMS Blog Policy:  This blog will not include discussion of publishing practices, book or journal prices, or other matters of business or administration.   Comments will be vetted accordingly.

Posted in Academic Book Publishing, American Mathematical Society, Authors, Careers, Innovation, Mathematics, Readers, Research, Social Impact, Teaching, Technology Trends | 6 Comments