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The Mad Scribbler 

 

 

Doing
the Math

 

You know your strategy is flawed if your problems mount when it succeeds.”

Fareed Zakaria,
journalist

 

All the discussion in recent months about the Department of Justice’s allegation that five major publishers colluded on the price-fixing of e-books has included a lot of discussion about book prices, which has led me to think about math lately.

As it happens, I recently received an email from my seventh grade math teacher. He’d picked up a fantasy novel called Doppelgangster and realized that its author had been one of his students decades ago. When he emailed me to say hello, I was surprised that he remembered me, since I was a very poor math student. (Of course, it’s just barely possible that, despite my arithmophobia, I was loquacious and opinionated in his class...)

Later, as a high-school student, I slept through all my math classes. (An old friend inadvertently ratted on me last year, and my mother reamed me a new one despite the fact that it’s at least 30 years too late to punish me for this.) I had low math scores on my SATs, and my college major (languages) allowed me to skip math entirely—though I did have to read medieval Italian, so there was still some suffering. I was required to take a standardized test when applying to graduate school 20 years later, but I attended a master’s program that didn’t care that my math score strongly suggested I had let a poodle take the test for me.

Anyhow, I was touched that my seventh grade math teacher remembered me. Actually, more than that, he said that his early experience with me had influenced him: “You were such an extreme case, considering your intelligence, that I got interested in helping the ‘low’ kids, who turned out (shockingly!) to mostly have a lack of confidence and understanding of the basics. I could go on, but I’ll just say that math is a very poorly taught subject in most elementary schools and leave it at that. But you did inspire me in a way.” So apparently I achieved more than just wasting space in that classroom!

But despite my academic history, I’m actually pretty good with math that matters to me: money, sales figures, earnings percentages, splitting the bill, figuring the tip, etc. During the year I spent on the road in Africa dealing with multiple currencies, I could calculate in my head what a kilo of camel meat priced in Mauritanian ouguiya cost in West African francs, British sterling, or American dollars, and then subtract from that sum the local value of the pens that I was going to offer into the bargain (in those days, ballpoint pens were often good for bartering).

Math was also a source of conflict with my various literary agents. I always thought that an associate getting 15 percent of my income should be doing 15 percent of the work. I never found an agent who agreed, and thus math played a key role in my eventual decision to cease working with agents. Since then, I’ve been   

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