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