Cover image for Everything and more : a compact history of [infinity]
Everything and more : a compact history of [infinity]
Wallace, David Foster.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [2003]

Physical Description:
319 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.
General Note:
"Atlas books."
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library QA9 .W335 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



One of the outstanding voices of his generation, David Foster Wallace has won a large and devoted following for the intellectual ambition and bravura style of his fiction and essays. Now he brings his considerable talents to the history of one of math's most enduring puzzles: the seemingly paradoxical nature of infinity.Is infinity a valid mathematical property or a meaningless abstraction? The nineteenth-century mathematical genius Georg Cantor's answer to this question not only surprised him but also shook the very foundations upon which math had been built. Cantor's counterintuitive discovery of a progression of larger and larger infinities created controversy in his time and may have hastened his mental breakdown, but it also helped lead to the development of set theory, analytic philosophy, and even computer technology.Smart, challenging, and thoroughly rewarding, Wallace's tour de force brings immediate and high-profile recognition to the bizarre and fascinating world of higher mathematics.

Author Notes

Writer David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York on February 21, 1962. He received a B.A. from Amherst College in Massachusetts. He was working on his master's degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona when he published his debut novel The Broom of the System (1987).

Wallace published his second novel Infinite Jest (1996) which introduced a cast of characters that included recovering alcoholics, foreign statesmen, residents of a halfway house, and high-school tennis stars. He spent four years researching and writing this novel. His first collection of short stories was Girl with Curious Hair (1989). He also published a nonfiction work titled Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. He committed suicide on September 12, 2008 at the age of 46 after suffering with bouts of depression for 20 years.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

\rtf1\ansi\deff0In his previous books\emdash Infinite Jest 0 (1996), A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again0 (1997)\emdash Wallace has displayed dazzling intellect, keen wit, and a fondness for footnotes. But not even his biggest fans could have suspected that Wallace could write a clever, extensively footnoted, and shockingly readable introduction to the philosophical, historical, and mathematical significance of the concept of infinity. He begins with ancient understandings of infinity, paying special attention to Xeno and Aristotle, the latter of whom he describes as being sort of grandly and breathtakingly wrong, always and everywhere, when it comes to infinity. As the story culminates in Georg Cantor's worldview-shattering breakthroughs, the math becomes devilishly abstract, but Wallace's colloquial style makes it a relatively easy transition from the simple abstraction of numbers (i.e., that five represents something more than five apples or five oranges) into the mind-bending abstractions of transfinite numbers. Though readers with some college math will certainly find this less intimidating, the prose is so engaging, and the underlying metaphysical arguments so fascinating, that even this reviewer (who gave up on math entirely after a C-minus in pre-calc) got lost only a few times. A brilliant antidote both to boring math textbooks and to pop-culture math books that emphasize the discoverer over the discovery. --John Green Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The subject of infinity would probably strike most readers familiar with Wallace as perfectly suited to his recursive style, and this book is as weird and wonderful as you'd expect. There are footnotes galore, frequently prefaced by the acronym IYI ("If You're Interested"), which can signal either pure digression or the first hint of an idea more fully developed in later chapters. Among other textual idiosyncrasies is the constant use of the lemniscate instead of the word "infinity," emphasizing that this is "not just an incredibly, unbelievably enormous number" but an abstraction beyond what we normally conceive of when we contemplate numbers. Abstraction is one of Wallace's main themes, particularly how the mathematics of infinity goes squarely against our instinct to avoid abstract thought. The ancient Greeks couldn't handle infinity, he points out, because they loathed abstraction. Later mathematicians fared better, and though the emphasis is on Georg Cantor, all the milestones are treated in turn. Wallace appreciates that infinity can be a "skullclutcher," and though the book isn't exactly easy going, he guides readers through the math gently, including emergency glossaries when necessary. He has an obvious enthusiasm for the subject, inspired by a high school teacher whose presence is felt at irregular intervals. Had he not pursued a career in literary fiction, it's not difficult to imagine Wallace as a historian of science, producing quirky and challenging volumes such as this every few years. (Oct.) FYI: This title, along with Sherwin Nuland's The Doctor's Plague, is launching James Atlas's Great Discoveries series for Norton. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Wallace's writing about math isn't new-his novel Infinite Jest (1996) and some of his essays include a more than superficial treatment of the subject. Here, however, he digs as deeply into it as is possible for a nonprofessional math geek faced with a page limit, and the result is classic DFW: engaging, self-conscious, playful, and often breathless. This second installment in the "Great Discoveries" series traces the history of infinity from the Greeks to the calculus, culminating in a discussion of Georg Cantor's (1845-1918) groundbreaking work with transfinite numbers. Unfortunately, context requires Wallace to bulldoze heroically through a couple thousand years of logic, geometry, and number theory, which, even with "emergency glossaries" and frequent cross-referencing tips, can make for some teeth-grindingly dense passages. In one of the 400-plus footnotes, he writes, "It's true that it would be nice if you've had some college math, but please rest assured that considerable pains have been taken and infelicities permitted to make sure it's not required." For devout Wallace fans, it won't matter either way. Readers looking to soak up some pure abstraction, however, may just need to read the book twice. Luckily, they couldn't have been blessed with a more talented or stimulating guide. Enthusiastically recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/03.]-Christopher Tinney, Brooklyn, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Wallace treats the notion of infinity--a grand story beginning with Zeno's paradox and the Greeks and climaxing with Georg Cantor's work. The sea of details between these includes the development of mathematical analysis and the theory of the real numbers, deep and difficult notions for all students of mathematics. One wishes to like this book from an artful writer who knows the power of an abstract image. But it suffers from some unfortunate choices--(seemingly) endless abbreviations, wiseacre tone, and dependence on secondary sources replaced in recent years by better scholarship. Is it a caricature of mathematical writing that he tries by using abbreviations, or does he intend a technical voice, clanking along, to achieve a higher authority than smooth prose? Mathematical history is difficult to write; the intended audience is often hard to imagine before putting pen to paper. Although the thoroughness of his treatment is praiseworthy, the audience must be tough as nails to hear the long story to its end. For infinity, Eli Maor's To Infinity and Beyond (CH, Jul'87) is a better introduction. Ivor Grattan-Guinness's The Norton History of the Mathematical Sciences: The Rainbow of Mathematics (CH, May'99) is better for the growth of ideas in analysis. ^BSumming Up: Optional. General readers; lower-division undergraduates. J. McCleary Vassar College

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