Thursday's Book: The Book of Numbers by William Hartston

Christopher Hirst
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:47

Thankfully, this book is more concerned with facts than mathematics. Anyone wanting to learn more about or the Fibonacci sequence should turn to the Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, a volume which none but propeller-heads will find either curious or interesting.

William Hartston sets his stall up with zero, revealing that "No people were injured by tea-cosies in Britain in 1994 (though three had been treated in hospital in the previous year as a result of tea-cosy accidents)". He keeps pumping out the facts up to 4,985,567,071,200 - which happens to be the US national debt in dollars on 14 November 1995.

This agglomeration of random knowledge is strangely addictive. Boswell suffered from gonorrhea 17 times in his life; an elephant's heart beats 25 times a minute; a horse has 205 bones, a human 206. Some numbers are unbearably poignant: 398,671 British troops were killed in the first battle of The Somme. Others are rather dubious. Do all farts contain 7 per cent methane? Does spaghetti account for 26 per cent of pasta? Does someone really start digging a hole in Britain every 15 seconds? In the main, Hartston's numerology is wonderfully quirky: I am delighted to know that there is one heliport in Algeria (later, we learn that there are 119 airports there) and 19 stations on the Baku underground.

The early numbers lay great stress on films ("The only known film with 19 in its title is Montparnasse 19 which is about Modigliani"). Much of the movie information in this book appears to come from a database, which explains why Hartston includes a 1979 obscurity called Seven ("a gunslinger is paid $7 million by the US government to deal with gangsters") but not last year's smash-hit shocker of the same title based on the seven deadly sins.

For a book concerned with figures, Hartston occasionally shows scant regard for accuracy. De Sade did not write "100 Days of Sodom" but 120 Days of Sodom. The address of the White House is not 160 Pennsylvania Avenue but 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And there are some peculiar omissions.

Hartston doesn't mention that Aleister Crowley was the Great Beast 666, nor that the Duke of Wellington lived at No 1 London. McCartney's song "When I'm 64" is in, but not Lennon's "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire". Despite the odd blemish, this is ideal reading for the smallest room ("the longest recorded case of constipation lasted 102 days") while you are engaged in performing your number twos.

Richard Cohen Books, pounds 9.99

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