Numerous students, I'm convinced, have a mental block against either English or math. Mine is the latter, which is why I'm not a physicist, despite being attracted to physics. I did first pick up "A Tour of the Calculus" hoping to at some point along the way unravel the mystery of it's subject A Tour of the Calculus. But this book I picked up purely from my English major desire to read more Berlinski. Odd as it sounds, I simply put up with all the math in this book in order to read the writing, which is erudite and lyrical. Along the way, however, the author started getting around my defenses, and I started following the formulas. Why is a whole 'nother paragraph.
Berlinski anticipates, and voices, the reader's (or at least this reader's) questions and objections along the way. Yes, I learned the number line. But why is there a number line? And, if it comes to that, why read about it? Because it's an amazing invention, DB made me see, and like a truly top notch teacher, he related it to counting, which has forever taken on a sort of golden glow for this reader, and showed how it can even handle the negative numbers, themselves an amazing invention. That would have been enough, but there's more. And it's even more elementary or primal. "The calculations and concepts of absolutely elementary mathematics are controlled by the single act of counting by one." You're kidding! I'm hooked, and that's only page five.
There aren't many of the long, lyrical portraits that seem drawn from forgotten novels that are so prevalent in "Calculus", although they start sprouting in the second half of the book. But there are some terse bits in the history of mathematics that tie everything together. It's even possible to "do some forgetting" and see these discoveries afresh, and feel their attendant excitement. But also, revisiting the classroom scenes, Berlinski asks the questions students form but don't put, and shows how to get to the answers teachers might not give. It's truly exciting to see the relations between the various operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and the various proofs that work for some of these and not others, with Berlinski explaining and showing why this would be the case. Moreso, how this led to things before I only knew the names of: sets, and rings, and succession, and fields, and, in the tantalizing realm of physics, Planck's length.
I knew of the mysterious properties of zero from reading about binary, heretofore the most interesting and fruitful mathematical idea I had encountered, but Berlinski's discussion of zero opens onto endless vistas. He brings up base 10 and the decimal system, but not in a discussion of bases (binary doesn't figure in anywhere). rather, of exponents and logarithms. This last always seemed to me to be entirely arbitrary, but his brief once over clears it right up, and he doesn't even delve into sines and cosines. That's how absolutely elementary this mathematics is. Which makes for absolutely engaging reading.