book-reviews

The Search for E. T. Bell: Also Known as John Taine

by Constance Bowman Reid

Rating: ★★★★

A biographer's biography in more than one way. Reid takes the subject of a somewhat minor-league major mathematician, and turns it into something of a detective story. Anyone who has been bitten by the bug of specific research will find the first sections of this book a familiarly addictive trip: Reid pulls on a small thread of some minor inconsistencies in Bell's family history, and starts to discover confusing contradictions, the solutions to which require a great deal of searches through ancient records, queries to distant archives, and scrutiny of faint clues. The highs of discovering an explanatory reference handwritten in a book, the gutting lows when critical records for exactly the period you require are missing -- it's an academic thriller. I won't spoil the ending.

The later portions of the book, relating to Bell's career as a mathematician and as the science-fiction writer John Taine, are less gripping but still relatable in various ways. Academically, he discovered a couple of goldmines of number theory, principally from studying older mathematicians, and seems to have been something of an oddball -- ahead of his time in some respects, but pathologically unclear, so later mathematicians often retrod his work without it being known. His science-fiction and poetry was similarly strange, although there at least that is considered desirable (though not so desirable that either he or his family could get his favoured work -- a strange and ponderous eleven-book poem, into print). Personally, he seems to have been somewhat difficult, with a desire to shock, and some puzzling about-faces in his treatment of old friends. Of course, all biographies ultimately reach the same concluding note.

Reid is a good biographer. While she sometimes makes slightly too much of her mystery (people muddy the truth, or forget things, even about family), her writing is engaging and heavily based on the evidence she can extract from documentary and personal traces of Bell, all presented in-text rather than as citations, along with her own reasoning, giving the satisfying impression that you are getting a factual but rich picture. Well worth the read, even if you're not particularly interested in mathematicians.