The Professor and Root

Excerpt from The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa

This is an excerpt from the book The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder.

WE CALLED HIM the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.

“There’s a fine brain in there,” the Professor said, mussing my son’s hair. Root, who wore a cap to avoid being teased by his friends, gave a wary shrug. “With this one little sign we can come to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can’t see.” He traced the symbol in the thick layer of dust on his desk.

Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the Professor, the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No doubt he would have been bothered by my use of the word countless—too sloppy, for he believed that the very origins of the universe could be explained in the exact language of numbers—but I don’t know how else to put it. He taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a hundred thousand places, and the largest number of all, which was used in mathematical proofs and was in the Guinness Book of Records, and about the idea of something beyond infinity. As interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience of simply spending time with the Professor. I remember when he taught us about the spell cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. It was a rainy evening in early April. My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light in the Professor’s study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain.

The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.

“Then what happens if you take the square root of negative one?” he asked.

“So you’d need to get – 1 by multiplying a number by itself?” Root asked. He had just learned fractions at school, and it had taken a half-hour lecture from the Professor to convince him that numbers less than zero even existed, so this was quite a leap. We tried picturing the square root of negative one in our heads: . The square root of 100 is 10; the square root of 16 is 4; the square root of 1 is 1. So the square root of – 1 is …

He didn’t press us. On the contrary, he fondly studied our expressions as we mulled over the problem.

“There is no such number,” I said at last, sounding rather tentative.

“Yes, there is,” he said, pointing at his chest. “It’s in here. It’s the most discreet sort of number, so it never comes out where it can be seen. But it’s here.” We fell silent for a moment, trying to picture the square root of minus one in some distant, unknown place. The only sound was the rain falling outside the window. My son ran his hand over his head, as if to confirm the shape of the square root symbol.

But the Professor didn’t always insist on being the teacher. He had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge, and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of negative one itself. Whenever he needed my help, he would interrupt me in the most polite way. Even the simplest request—that I help him set the timer on the toaster, for example—always began with “I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but …” Once I’d set the dial, he would sit peering in as the toast browned. He was as fascinated by the toast as he was by the mathematical proofs we did together, as if the truth of the toaster were no different from that of the Pythagorean theorem.

The Housekeeper and the Professor – Summary

Here is the book summary:

He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem–ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.

She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.

And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them.

Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities–like the Housekeeper’s shoe size–and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.

Copyright © 2003 by Yōko Ogawa.

Translated by: Stephen Snyder

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

A thing in motion

This is a quote from the book Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft.

Quote by Olga Tokarczuk, “Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that—in spite of all the risks involved—a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Flights – Summary

Here is the book summary:

From the incomparably original Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, Flights interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.

Copyright © 2007 by Olga Tokarczuk.

Translated by: Jennifer Croft

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

The world in your head

Excerpt from Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft.

The first trip I ever took was across the fields, on foot. It took them a long time to notice I was gone, which meant I was able to make it quite some distance. I covered the whole park and even — going down dirt roads, through the corn and the damp meadows teeming with cowslip flowers, sectioned into squares by ditches — reached the river. Though of course the river was ubiquitous in that valley, soaking up under the ground cover and lapping at the fields.

Clambering up onto the embankment, I could see and undulating ribbon, a road that kept flowing outside of the frame, outside of the world, IF you were lucky, you might catch sight of a boat there, one of those great flat boats gliding over the river in either direction, oblivious to the shores, to the trees, to the people who stand on the embankment, unreliable landmarks, perhaps, not worth remarking, just an audience to the boats own motion, so full of grace. I dreamed of working on a boat like that when I grew up—or even better, of becoming one of those boats.

It wasn’t a big river, only the Oder, but I, too, was little then. It had its place in the hierarchy of rivers, which I later checked on the maps—a minor one, but present, nonetheless, a kind of country viscountess at the court of the Amazon queen. But it was more than enough for me. It seemed enormous. It flowed as it liked, essentially unimpeded, prone to flooding, unpredictable.

Occasionally along the banks it would catch on some underwater obstacle, and eddies would develop. But the river flowed on, parading, concerned only with its hidden aims beyond the horizon, somewhere far off the the north. Your eyes couldn’t keep focused on the water, which pulled your gaze along up past the horizon, so that you’d lose your balance.

To me, of course, the river paid no attention, caring only for itself, those changing, roving waters into which—as I later learned—you can never step twice.

Every year it charged a steep price to bear the weight of those boats—because every year someone drowned in the river, whether a child taking a dip on a hot summer’s day or some drunk who somehow wound up on the bridge and, in spite of the railing, still fell into the water. The search for the drowned always took place with great pomp and circumstance, with everyone in the vicinity waiting with bated breath. THey’d bring in divers and army boats. According to adults’ accounts we overheard, the recovered bodies were swollen and pale—the water had rinsed all the life out of them, blurring their facial features to such an extent that their loved ones would have a hard time identifying their corpses.

Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that—in spite of all the risks involved—a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity. From then on, the river was like a needle inserted into my formerly safe and stable surroundings, the landscape composed of the park, the greenhouses with their vegetables that grew in sad little rows, and the sidewalk with its concrete slabs where we would go to play hopscotch. This needle went all the way through, marking a vertical third dimension; so pierced, the landscape of my childhood world turned out to be nothing more than a toy made of rubber from which all the air was escaping, with a hiss.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Flights – Summary

Here is the book summary:

From the incomparably original Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, Flights interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.

Copyright © 2007 by Olga Tokarczuk.

Translated by: Jennifer Croft

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.