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The Maths Handbook – Richard Elwes ***

I can’t score this book more than 3 stars because it’s not really popular maths, but it does what it sets out to do rather well, so it should be seen in this context. As Richard Elwes points out in his introduction ‘I was never any good at maths,’ is something you hear all the time. What he sets out to do – and succeeds in admirably – is taking the reader step by step through the basics of maths to be able to manage those slippery figures with ease.
The approach is not as heavy as a textbook, though occasionally I did get the feel of a slight older, fussy teacher at work. (It’s notable that the precise expression we’re told Elwes has heard from ‘a thousand different people’ is ‘I was never any good at mathematics.’ Hardly anyone would say ‘mathematics’ rather than ‘maths’. Now it’s possible he was trying to avoid the UK/US maths/math split – but it still fits that slightly fussy precision we meet on a regular basis through the text.)
I really can’t fault the step-by-step progress, starting with basic arithmetic, taking us on to fractions and powers, roots and logs, percentages, algebra, geometry and even a brief intro to probability and statistics. Each of the sections is quite short, easily digested, well laid out and illustrated and finished off with a little quiz that’s not too taxing but helps reinforce the message. I suppose the only question is whether it’s best to arrange such an introduction by the structure of maths itself (as this book is) or by application, taking the reader through typical mathematical chores from checking a shopping bill to calculating odds at a bookies. That way you could cover the same ground but perhaps make it seem more real world. However, Elwes doesn’t resort to an excess of mathematical jargon, keeping the focus simple – and at least by structuring the book on the maths itself it can have the most logical progression of experience.
As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t popular maths. A popular maths book is not a tutorial in how to use it, with tests, but an exploration of some aspect of maths, the people involved, the history and its significance. This is much more a practical book. I would it see it being particularly useful to an adult learner who had trouble with maths at school and now wants to come back to it and take it on. It is a lot less condescending than most modern maths textbooks and would appeal more to a mature reader. So for this particular audience it is definitely an option well worth considering – and it’s excellent value, priced like cheap paperback but actually a good size and well-made book. Just not really for someone wanting a voyage of discovery about the history or nature of mathematics.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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