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Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash [Abridged] (audiobook) by Sylvia Nasar

Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2001
Read by Edward Herrmann
Duration: 5 hours, 55 minutes

I freely admit that I am one of the few people that did not see the movie A Beautiful Mind. So, I decided to give the audiobook a try. Turns out, I have discovered after a little research,  the book and the movie have little in common. Fair enough.

The plot in short is that John Nash was identified as a mathematical genius in college and brought into several special programs to develop that genius. He specialized in what laymen might call "pure" mathematics but he also was intrigued by economics. In 1959, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and he spent time in and out of several mental hospitals. Eventually, he was released from those hospitals and he lived in and around the Princeton campus as a shadowy figure who left mathematical equations on the chalkboards when no one was around. After more than 25 years, Nash finally began to emerge from his illness. He groundbreaking work in the 1950's in economics was recognized in 1994 when he received the Nobel Prize for Economics.

I listened to the almost 6 hour long abridged version read by veteran actor and spokesman Edward Herrmann, not the 18 hour unabridged version read by Anna Fields. Keeping in mind that readers read at different paces, it is still quite obvious that a lot of the original book was cut out of my edition.

Sadly, I cannot say that I am sorry that I missed a lot of this book. The best parts of the book describe the community he worked in and his relationships with other people. Unfortunately, there are long descriptions of the very very high level mathematics he worked on. If I were reading these passages in a text, I would skim them, but it is quite difficult to skim with an audiobook in the car CD player. Instead, I endured mind-numbingly confusing descriptions of geometric concepts and game theory.

Even worse, the portrayal of John Nash in the book makes it hard to have any human sympathy for the man when "he slipped into madness" as the blurb on the back of the audiobook describes it. He was cruel to the women in his life, he was cruel to his students, he was indifferent to almost everyone else except for those few that he would obsess over to a level that we would describe as stalking nowadays. What I was struck by was a sense of his being an utter sociopath.

When his illness overtook him I felt less for the loss of a human being and more for the loss of his mathematical genius. I felt the loss of his utility to humanity as a whole and not the loss of his own humanity. He expressed so little human decency before he became so ill that he could not help but feel that his illness was a sort of cosmic Karma punishing him. I am sure that was not the intention of the author (and that these were all symptoms of his mental illness in its early forms), but I was struck by it as I listened and I did not enjoy it. I am sure that is why the movie is so different.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash [Abridged]

Reviewed on December 27, 2012

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