I’m not a mathematician – I liked the subject at school, but ended up heading down the path of Physics (and in an experimentalist direction). I have though heard a few things about Paul Erdős – the prodigious number of papers, the lack of a non-mathematical social life, Erdős numbers. After reading this book, I know more about him but it’s generally in the same vein: his odd language of slang terms (god = “the supreme fascist”, children = “epsilons”), various anecdotes from friends and colleagues. Actually he does come across as very social (in his awkward way), and with a hefty supply of witticisms to liven things up – quite different from Paul Dirac, to pick another eccentric from the list of biographies I’ve read recently.
The book does feel rather stretched out, setting the scene for his work with lengthy diversions on other mathematicians (GH Hardy, Ronald Graham, Srinivasa Ramanujan). These are interesting enough, but it’s not exactly a heavyweight character study. This is probably for the best. Along with the fact that the mathematics is kept to a minimum (enough to explain the general scope of the various topics, but not enough to feel like work), it feels like a book that I would have enjoyed back at school. It might even have encouraged me to set off in a more mathematical direction – luckily I’m a bit past that now.