“You know your strategy is flawed if your problems mount when it succeeds.”
— Fareed Zakaria,
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
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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