Favorite excerpts from some of my favorite books.

Mathematics Made Difficult, by Carl E. Linderholm


One of the great Zen masters had an eager disciple who never lost an opportunity to catch whatever pearls of wisdom might drop from the master’s lips, and who followed him about constantly. One day, deferentially opening an iron gate for the old man, the disciple asked, How may I attain enlightenment?” The ancient sage, though withered and feeble, could be quick, and he deftly caused the heavy gate to shut on the pupil’s leg, breaking it.

When the reader has understood this little story, then he will understand the purpose of this book. It would seem to the unenlightened that as though the master, far from teaching his disciple, had left him more perplexed than ever by his cruel trick. To the enlightened, the anecdote expresses a deep truth. It is impossible to spell out for the reader what this truth is; he can only be referred to the anecdote.

“The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton

All other passions are subordinate unto these four, or six, as some will: love, joy, desire, hatred, sorrow, fear; the rest, as anger, envy, emulation, pride, jealousy, anxiety, mercy, shame, discontent, despair, ambition, avarice, &c., are reducible unto the first; and if they be immoderate, they consume the spirits, and melancholy is especially caused by them.

Carmen 101, by G.V. Catullus

Compelled through many countries and through many seas, I arrive here, brother, for a wretched funeral So that I can give to you, in death, this final gift And so I, in vain, can converse with your unspeaking ashes, For fortune has taken from me your very self. Alas, poor brother, undeservedly taken from me. Now, even as these gifts, inveterate customs of our parents, Are offered in a sorrowful duty to the burial. Take them, wet with a great trickle of brotherly tears. And so forever, my brother, hail and goodbye—

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias, ut te postremo donarem munere mortis et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem. Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum. Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi, nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias, accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu, atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

Gathering Nectar, from “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee

A few remarkable figures are worth quoting. A strong hive contains one mature queen, a few hundred male drones, and some 20,000 female workers. For every pound of honey taken to market, eight pounds are used by the hive in its everyday activities. The total flight path required for a bee to gather enough nectar for this pound of surplus honey has been estimated at three orbits around the earth. The average bee forages within one mile of the hive, makes up to 25 round trips each day, and carries a load of around 0.002 of an ounce or 0.06 grams—approximately half its weight. With its light chassis, a bee would get about 7 million miles to a gallon (3 million km per liter) of honey. In a lifetime of gathering, a bee contributes only a small fraction of an ounce of honey to the hive.

Scena Tertia, from “The Tragedy of Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

Enter a Porter. Knocking within.

Port. Here’s a knocking indeed: if a man were Porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the Key.


Knock, Knock, Knock. Who’s there i’th’ name of Belzebub? Here’s a Farmer, that hang’d himself on th’ expectation of Plenty: Come in time, have Napkins enow about you, here you’ll sweat for’t.


Knock, knock. Who’s there in th’ other Devils Name? Faith here’s an Equivocator, that could swear in both the Scales against either Scale, who committed Treason enough for Gods sake, yet could not equivocate to Heaven: oh come in, Equivocator.


Knock, Knock, Knock. Who’s there? ’Faith here’s an English Taylor come hither, for stealing out of a French Hose: Come in Taylor, here you may roast your Goose. Knock.

Knock, Knock. Never at quiet: What are you? but this place is too cold for Hell. I’ll Devil-Porter it no further: I had thought to have let in some of all Professions, that go the Primrose way to th’ everlasting Bonfire.


Anon, anon, I pray you remember the Porter.

Enter Macduff, and Lenox.

Macd. Was it so late, friend, ere you went to Bed, That you do lie so late?

Port. Faith Sir, we were carousing till the second Cock: And Drinke, Sir, is a great provoker of three things

Macd. What three things does Drinke especially provoke?

Port. Marry, Sir, Nose-painting, Sleepe, and Urine. Lecherie, Sir, it provokes, and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much Drinke may be said to be an Equiuocator with Lecherie: it makes him, and it marres him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and dis-heartens him; makes him stand too, and not stand too: in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the Lye, leaves him

Macd. I believe, Drinke gave thee the Lye last Night.

Port. That it did, Sir, i’the very Throat on me: but I requited him for his Lie, and (I thinke) being too strong for him, though he took up my Legges sometime, yet I made a Shift to cast him.