A Clockwork Orange and a Math Classic You’ve Probably Never Heard of.

Newly added to my list: A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess, and Flatland (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott. Let’s go in reverse order.

a Flatland house. Women use a separate door.

a Flatland house. Women use a separate door.

Edwin Abbott was a British Theologian and Schoolmaster who wrote the novella, Flatland ($2 paperback, free on Kindle!). On the surface it is a story of dimensions, and geometry. It also has subtle hints of the norms of Victorian society. The first part of the story is the less math-y part, and was slow reading for me. The narrator is a square, a member of Flatland’s (2-dimensional) social caste of gentleman. This first part describes society, the subordination of women and the reality that in this society, one’s standing in the world is based on how many sides he has. It hints at euthanasia of deformed individuals and describes how reproduction works- especially the process by which one’s children can rise to a higher social standing than his parents. It also explains how, in a 2-dimensional world (as if we all were lying flat on a table), you can tell what exactly what shape (and, therefore, their social standing) someone else is. 

The second part concerns a dream A. Square (the narrator) has. He travels to Lineland, the one-dimensional world. He tries to convince the King of Lineland that there is more to existence than just what is visible directly in front of them. Remember, in a one-dimensional world, there is only length, no width. So one-dimensional lines (which are strings of points) only see the points immediately in front of or behind them, they have no concept of “side” and have developed other ways to identify who is speaking when it is not the person right in front of them. A. Square finds it futile to convince the King to “see” beyond the one-dimension life he experiences.

Without giving too much else away, I’ll say that next a sphere from Spaceland (three-dimensions) visits Flatland and successfully convinces the square that a 3-D world does exist. The square then postulates that there must be worlds with more than three dimensions.  

This is a piece of literature that I would guess is almost unheard of, outside of the math community. Actually, I’ve never heard a math teacher below university level ever refer to it. In any case, I felt like it was something that would be cool to say I have read. I didn’t learn anything new, though, and if you can visualize dimensions, you won’t either.

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A Clockwork Orange is #65 on Modern Library’s Top English-language novels of all-time. I remember watching the movie and being very disturbed. Which, I think, is good…you should be disturbed with this story. Although, it’s interesting to note that the movie does not include the events found in the final chapter of the book — Kubrick thought it was unconvincing and inconsistent with the previous 20 chapters. I will say that the final chapter has a distinct moment of “metanoia,” if you happen to know Carl Jung or your Greek root words.

To summarize the plot, but not so much that you feel no need to read the story: Alex and his gang are ultra-violent — Alex finds thrills and extreme enjoyment in terrorizing people, beating up random passers-by, and raping women (including children). He also shows a sense of refinement, particularly in his love of classical music. At a certain point, he becomes the guinea pig for a new aversion therapy, which makes him become physically ill when thinking of violence. It seems like he has been “cured.” This new reality, in which situations which he used to delight in make him ill, results in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He may have been cured, but is the process of taking away someone’s free will really “curing” them? He may not be in a physical prison, but he isn’t “free” when he has been conditioned to feel miserable.

I am intentionally skipping some key events so that I don’t give too much away. Please don’t write me a comment to tell me this summary is incomplete or inaccurate. Thanks.

The author, Anthony Burgess, targets Watson and Skinner’s idea of behaviorism. Burgess was highly critical of Skinner’s idea of beahvior modification through operant conditioning.

The other thing you should know about this work, is that Alex (who is British) speaks in a slang language created by the author. This lexicon, “nadsat,” consists of many Russian, gypsy, British slang, and young child (almost baby talk words). Alex refers to himself as “your humble narrator” and speaks in this slang throughout. It can be quite confusing to “translate” into English, although you can usually figure out meanings from the context. Most paperback copies have a Nadsat dictionary at the end of the book.

Examples: “I read this with care, my brothers, slurping away at the old chai, cup after tass after chasha, crunching my lomticks of black toast dipped in jammiwam and eggiweg.”

In conclusion, I enjoyed the book much more than the movie.

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