Top 10 Martin Gardner Books (This List Goes Up to 11)

"Pick up anything Martin Gardner wrote," advises mathematician, magician and MacArthur award winner Persi Diaconis. "You'll smile and learn something." This is very true, but with over 100 books to choose from, by Gardner's own estimation, where should one start?
10/28/2014 05:51 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

"Pick up anything Martin Gardner wrote," advises mathematician, magician and MacArthur award winner Persi Diaconis. "You'll smile and learn something." This is very true, but with over 100 books to choose from, by Gardner's own estimation, where should one start?

The Top 10 list below (which actually goes to 11) is intended to capture some of the breath and depth of the output of this remarkable American man of letters and numbers (and patterns and rationality and a lot more), who would have turned 100 this month.

I had the good fortune to get to know Martin Gardner in his later years—he died in 2010—and he was refreshingly down to earth and modest for such an accomplished, well-connected, and highly-regarded author. Even though he was in his 90s, he just wanted to keep working, which for him meant reading, processing information and ideas that captivated him, and relating those to his already vast experience, and finally writing some of that down for likeminded souls to enjoy. He was a most generous man too, freely offering advice and even spare copies of his books to all who visited him.

In recent weeks, dozens of media outlets and blogs have honored the legacy of this most prolific writer from Oklahoma, including the New York Times, NPR, and the BBC, as have numerous specialized magazines.

Martin Gardner wrote about magic, mathematics, science (good, bad, and bogus), and wordplay, as well as philosophy and religion. He also loved children's literature, and in 1957, he co-founded the International Wizard of Oz Club. Our list includes examples of all of those genres. He also wrote about chess, poetry, and many other topics not mentioned below; chess lovers in particular should investigate further.

Certainly, if you read and absorb all 11 items suggested, you'll be both extraordinarily well read and very familiar with the main passions which drove Martin to read, think, and above all write—seemingly without pausing for breath—for 80 years starting with his first magic publication in 1930.

Some of Martin's books were revised substantially years after they first appeared, often with new titles and artwork. In these cases, we generally recommend (and display the covers of) the later, "definitive" versions.

For a true Top 10 list, simply drop one of these 11. For each one offered we've also supplied a plausible reason to ignore it.

Because of the difficulty of selecting from the large number of fine puzzles collections that Martin published throughout his life, not to mention the fifteen books of his Scientific American columns, we opted to recommend two later compendia which cover much of this territory admirably.

The books are presented in the order of first publication, even if latter editions superceded the original versions.

Enjoy!

   
1. Fads and Fallacies (1957, originally 1952) was his first full length book, and like many of his books, it grew out of a well-received essay. Here he takes on numerous pseudoscientific and cult beliefs, with passion, logic, and humor. His targets ranged from ESP believers, flat earthers, Forteans, and flying saucers followers, to devotees of homeopathy, L. Ron Hubbard, and medical crackpots. As Huffington Post columnist Michael Shermer observed, "Modern skepticism has developed into a science-based movement, beginning with Martin Gardner's 1952 classic."

Ignore if you think everyone's sensible and rational today, and there are no worrisome consequences of shunning conventional medicine in favor of dubious, unproven alternative therapies.

   
2. Mathematics, Magic and Mystery (1956) is a delightful introduction to low-tech self-working magic tricks that work because of basic mathematical principles. The props are simple: cards, dice, dominoes, calendars, watches, money, matches, checkerboards, string, rope, rubber bands, pencil and paper. No, you don't need to know any mathematics, and reading this won't teach you how to pull a quarter out of a child's ear. However, the predictions and magic forces you'll soon be able to accomplish should impress your co-workers, friends and family alike. This was the first book for the general public that revealed some clever (and then recent) creations of real working magicians.

It also book served as the inspiration for Mathematics Awareness Month 2014, which offers 30 pages of Gardneresque activities, with videos and other great resources.

Ignore if you think everything magical has to involve flashy sleight of hand or some gimmick that needs batteries.


   
3. Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (1999, originally 1960) was Martin's best seller by far; he once said it sold over a million copies in its various editions. It's based on two classic books by Lewis Carroll, who in real life was a logician and mathematician in Victorian England. Martin added extensive commentary, background information on the era and the characters, and explanations of the numerous mathematical references that Carroll had buried in the text.

This book launched a genre, with Isaac Asimov and others soon issuing volumes in the same spirit. Its success spurred Martin to publish more annotated books himself, on "The Ancient Mariner," "Casey at the Bat," "The Night Before Christmas," and a couple of G. K. Chesterton works. He also had lots to say about the land of Oz.

Ignore if you've never paid any attention to a book that has charmed children and adults alike for a century and a half, and you don't intend giving in now.


   
4. The New Ambidextrous Universe: Symmetry and Asymmetry from Mirror Reflections to Superstrings (2005, originally 1964) grew out of a paper Martin published in 1952. There, to quote his own words, "I considered the possibility that someday a basic law of nature might prove to be left-right asymmmetric. I ruled this out as unthinkable. Five years later, the unthinkable occurred." Five years after that, he completed a 294-page book on the ramifications, which was updated repeatedly over the years to account for advances in physics, finally topping out at 400 pages.

Ignore if the basic question "Why do mirrors seem to switch left and right but not up and down?" makes yours head hurt, even after you've given it some thought.


   
5. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983) came with dust-jacket blurbs by Doug Hofstadter, Stephen Jay Gould and Noam Chomsky, and was cited by Martin in 2005 as his personal fave, "because it is a detailed account of everything I believe." He continued, "The book is controversial because almost everybody who believes in a personal god is into an established religion. The idea of believing in God and not being affiliated with any particular religion is a strange kind of a position to take."

Those of his fans who were paying attention were largely caught off guard by the unconventional and emotional "leap of faith" reasons he gave for believing in a god, an afterlife, and the value of prayer. This came after rejecting solipsism, pragmatism, paranormalism, determinism, Marxism, polytheism, pantheism and much more.

Ignore if don't think much about The Big Questions.


   
6. Martin Gardner Presents (1993) is a 415-page tome collecting over six decades worth of inventive creations of Martin's in the realm of close-up magic with cards, coins, dice, ropes, paper, and more. While he was never a professional performing magician, conjuring was an interest from an early age. He published in magic journals throughout his life, and in 1999, MAGIC magazine named him as one of the "100 Most Influential Magicians of the Twentieth Century."

Ignore if insider magic stuff just doesn't do it for you, or you'd rather let somebody else do the entertaining.

In Martin Gardner Presents, Martin wrote, "I've often thought about writing a book on magic for 5-year-olds. I'll probably never get around to it." He didn't, but he came close with:


   

7. Mental Magic: Surefire Tricks to Amaze Your Friends (1999) is a slim yet substantial book, whose artwork and presentation are very kid friendly. For many years in the 1950s, Martin's day job had been writing for children, for both Polly Pigtails and Humpty Dumpty's Magazine, so he was skilled in getting youngsters' attentions.

While Mental Magic was ostensibly written for such a market, and includes simple gags and magic forces with words, cards, dice and calculators, it also features classic tricks by Bob Hummer, Paul Curry, George Sands, Max Maven, Karl Fulves, and Jim Steinmeyer. The underlying principles of those are far from juvenile, indeed the opening trick's mathematical explanation (not provided) is quite sophisticated. The upshot is that adults will find much to savor here too, and children will learn a lot while thinking they're just having fun.

Ignore if you don't want to be seen with what looks like a children's book.


   
8. The Colossal Book of Mathematics (2001) is Martin's own selection of the best 50 of the 300 legendary articles he wrote for Scientific American starting in 1956. Many of his classic "Mathematical Games" columns are to be found in these 724 pages, on Penrose tiles, sphere packing, the fourth dimension, Escher's art, the Soma cube, Conway's Game of Life, Newcomb's paradox, and the infamous April fool column, and the hexaflexagons article that started it all.

Ignore if Martin's unique brand of "right-brain tomfoolery that could be approached for superficial fun or deep insght, or both at the same time" (to quote David Brooks) doesn't sound like your cup of tea.

   
9. The Colossal Book of Short Puzzles and Problems (2005) rounds up the best of the occasional collections of 8 or 9 short puzzles that appeared in the "Mathematical Games" over the years, along with a dozen new gems. This 494-page book was lovingly compiled by Martin's bibiliographer and biographer Dana Richards. From the strange case of the explorer who walked one mile south, one mile east, and finally one mile north, only to find himself back to where he started, to the headscatcher about truthtellers and liars (problem 2 here), and the mutilated chessboard conundrum (problem 7 here), to the challenge of the touching cigarettes—which lead to a surprising breakthrough in 2013—there is enough brain candy here to keep most people busy for a very long time.

Ignore if you never liked the problems in Parade magazine or on Car Talk—a few of which came by way of Martin—or if your approach to "problem solving" is to look up the answers on the internet. Warning: nailing a couple of brainteasers yourself can lead to unmistakably pleasurable and rewarding Aha! moments.


   
10. Colossal Book of Wordplay (2010) was written with the help of Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings. While nowhere near a colossal as its namesakes above—being a mere 160 pages long—it does feature a feast of linguistic treats, from palindromes, lipograms, pangrams, anagrams, acrostics, and clerihews, to word squares, word ladders and cryptarithms. Some of the material had appeared earlier in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, a publication which Martin had a hand in founding.

Ignore if you don't care why the words lamina, stressed, and rewarder are special—not to mention the words biopsy, chimps, and chintz—or what two-syllable six-letter word has only one syllable when two letters are added at the start, or why a tennis player might eagerly ask "10SNE1?".


   
11. Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (2013) was written in the last two years of his life. It's more of an informal memoir than a blow-by-blow autobiography, but reading it is like chatting to the man for a whole weekend.

His life, especially his intellectual life, took him all over the map, from his Christian youth in Tulsa, OK, to his doubting college days in Chicago, to his many years as a leading thinker and writer in NYC and beyond. It's all here, plus his four years in the Navy, along with fascinating tales of encounters with a cast of characters including philosopher Betrand Russell, eccentric artist Salvador Dali, and computer science pioneer Donald Knuth.

Ignore if you expect it to to focus on the part of his life which you find the most interesting. Martin has a bigger story to tell, and he resisted being pigeonholed right up to the end.

Celebrations of Mind events are taking place all over the world from now until the end of the year in which people get together to have fun sharing the legacy of ideas that Martin Gardner left behind. Anyone can attend or host one. Grab your Annotated Alice, or any of the books mentioned above, round up a few friends, and have fun. Please register your event so we know where Martin's output is being remembered and enjoyed, and also to connect with a vibrant community which has the potential to make a real difference by putting the fun back into "fundamental education."

The author of this article, Colm Mulcahy, is Professor of Mathematics at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of Mathematical Card Magic: Fifty-Two New Effects (AK Peters/CRC, 2013).