Literary journalist on the cusp of old age confronts his mathphobia in this beguiling memoir

“A Divine Language,” by Alec Wilkinson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/TNS)

“A Divine Language” by Alec Wilkinson; Farrar, Straus & Giroux (287 pages, $29)

Look, now: Buried amid this summer’s beach reads, your Grishams and Hilderbrands, is a literary treasure. Alec Wilkinson’s keen-eyed, beguiling new memoir, “A Divine Language,” recounts how, in his 60s, he confronted the ogres of his adolescence: algebra, geometry, calculus. A longtime contributor to the New Yorker, Wilkinson had been, like many of us, a mathphobe: quadratic formulas and differential calculus was all Greek to him. But he saw the numbers (and letters) on the wall, and wanted to know what they meant.

His old grievance feels personal. “Finally and furthermore and likewise and not least, I had it in for mathematics, for what I recalled of its self-satisfaction, its smugness, and its imperiousness,” he writes. “It had abused me, and I felt aggrieved. I was returning, with a half-century’s wisdom, to knock the smile off math’s face.”

With the encouragement of his niece Amie, a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago, he plunges in, taking remedial classes to brush up on arithmetic and fractions before moving onto algebra, his first challenge.

Wilkinson is a beautiful writer, a dry wit who seamlessly blends complex ideas with jazzy anecdotes and the history of math itself, conjuring pivotal figures from Euclid to Bertrand Russell. He structures his narrative across a year of immersive study, ranging over the symmetries and mysteries, including the sphinxlike riddle of the Goldbach Conjecture. (Google if your curiosity is piqued.)

He lavishly depicts one prodigy, Ferguson — a character with a goatee and Jesus-hair tucked beneath a cowboy hat — who bypassed academia to pursue professional gambling. There are wonderful riffs on perplexed scientists; Wilkinson quotes Darwin’s declarative metaphor: “A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there.” And Amie’s affectionate, bemused mentorship enriches the book; we should all have such a brilliant niece on call.

“A Divine Language” arcs from the hell of algebra to the purgatory of geometry: it “turned out to be more congenial than algebra had been,” Wilkinson notes. “I wouldn’t say it was welcoming, but I wasn’t roughed up, either. I didn’t come out of the encounter bruised and disheveled.”

But then he slips down into the pit of calculus. While this is enough to cause flashback hives among former English majors, Wilkinson makes for a wise and affable companion, right there at our side. Gradually the abstractions come into focus, and we find our footing again.

He guides us through thickets of sine and cosine, digressions on Shakespeare and the concept of infinity. In the end he achieves his goal: His book demystifies math, illuminating the godlike, immutable properties of proofs and the ways numbers evolve, like animal species. For readers craving high style during the dog days, “A Divine Language” is simply divine.

A contributing books editor for Oprah Daily, Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues.

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