Applied Calculus and the Seventeen Books That I’d Like To Finally Read

I pulled out some calculus recently and applied it to life. Yeah, I did. To all of those high school math teachers out there that spend their days trying to convince their students that learning limits and functions are a good use of their time, there is hope. I did it.

How? you might ask.

Well, I was trying to explain to someone how I will never read all of the books on my ‘To Read’ list. Thanks to Goodreads, I know that this list sits in the neighbourhood of 488 books (at the time of writing this). There’s pros and cons to the ease with which Goodreads gives me this info: on the plus side, I know how many there are; the minus is that I guarantee you that I can add five books to that list by the time you finish reading this paragraph.

For those of you who don’t use Goodreads (for whatever reason), it’s sort of like Netflix for books. The site generates little sidebars that say “Because you read Quesadillas, a few similar books:” and then shows 18 different books, with cover art. I can then hover over each cover to generate a bubble where I can read a synopsis, and, should I choose to, click the “Want to Read” button that appears at the bottom.

(Side note: I really liked Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos. I’ll describe it as a surrealistic foray into life in poverty-stricken Mexico in the ’80’s. A quick little read, and a delight.)

Now, some people are super picky about what they read. They painstakingly put each book through a series of tests before committing to it. I envy these people. I see a book in front of me and chances are, I want to read it. I have to read it. I actually remember that my dad had to institute a rule for me at the library when I was a kid: no more than 10 books at a time. Seriously. And I remember I would sometimes try to bargain with him to get that 11th or 12th book in.

When it comes to books, I am nothing short of gluttonous.

So, how does calculus come into this? On the day in question, I was telling some co-workers that I will never actually be able to read every book I want to before I die. I was asked how many books I had on the ‘To Read’ list and I answered, “Close to 500.”
“But you’ll read 500 books before you die.”
“Yes, but …” I paused. “The list is constantly growing.”
“Like, by how much?”
I thought about it. “On average, I probably add five books to the list for every one book I finish.”

We were all quiet while we thought about this. And then, it hit me. This list grows exponentially, taking on more and more titles and never really losing any. I grabbed a whiteboard marker and tried to draw the curve representing the number of books on the list as it steadily marches on toward infinity. “It’s like in calculus, where n approaches infinity — n is the number of books I want to read — over time, t! And there’s some function, f(n), that defines how I keep adding the books even as I read them … but I don’t remember how to do that …”

This episode secured my place as the champion nerd of our workplace. But hey, it is what it is, and it really did seem like a practical application of all the calculus I slogged through in my late teens and early twenties (of which I’ve forgotten 99.7% of it. Sigh.).

Just before starting this post, I was scrolling through the never-ending ‘To Read’ list, trying to decide if I can put some sort of order to it, to decide what I really wanted to read, what I sort of wanted to read, what I just felt like I should read … and then I thought, “What are the 17 books that I would’ve wanted to have read most of all?”

Why 17? I don’t know. That’s the number my brain came up with.


Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear.

So. The Seventeen Books That I’d Finally Like to Read:

1. Point Counter Point, by Aldous Huxley. I took this book out of the library when I was marathoning Gossip Girl on Netflix. The jacket notes struck me as oddly reminiscent of the show (well, I guess it’d be the other way around since the book predates the show by about 90 years), only, you know, in a satirical Huxley sort of way.

2. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. I have actually read this before but hurriedly and so I feel like it deserves a second go-over. Not to mention that I’ve been reading a bunch of books set during WWII, leading to the inevitable What Ifs.

3. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller. It was banned for 27 years for being obscene & is now hailed as one of the best books of the 20th century. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever read any Henry Miller.

4. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. This book sounds gothically ultra-creepy, and so, every year, around Halloween, I pull this book out and decide to read it. Somehow, I never do, and eventually retire it to the shelf until the following year.

5. …

Okay, I’ve hit a block. I do not know where else to go with this list. There are simply too many choices, not to mention the stack of seven books that is currently taunting me from my bedside table. Do I add those? Do I presume I’ll finish them by the beginning of January, when they’re due back at the library? How do I decide between these 489 other books (yes, by the time I’m finishing this post, there are now 493 books on the ‘To Read’ list, which I will now just call The Big List.)?


Books This Post:

  • Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos. (I read the Rosalind Harvey translation.)
  • Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley.
  • The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick.
  • Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller.
  • The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins.

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