Simon: The Genius in My Basement by Alexander Masters is a sort of odd little book I found at the dollar store. It tells the story of Simon Norton, a mathematical prodigy, and how he went from Cambridge professor to eccentric bus schedule collector.
Since I picked the book because the cover was interesting and it was only a dollar, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I was about a quarter of the way through it before I realized it wasn’t fiction. For a while I wasn’t sure, and finally curiosity got the best of me and I looked it up and, yes, Simon Norton is a real person, a real mathematical prodigy, and a real eccentric bus schedule collector.
The story is not told in narrative form. The author by happenstance is a tenant in Simon’s house. Simon lives in the basement, and the author lives above him. It sort of unfolds as an archeological tour of Simon’s bizarre dwelling quarters, a dig through the books and stacks of papers that uncover more and more information about Simon’s past. Masters travels along with Simon to lobby for public transportation, and to ride the trains and buses that fascinate him.
There’s not much why in this book. There is no real beginning, middle, and end. It is punctuated by the author’s drawings of Simon, photographs and copies of newpaper articles, and dumbed-down-for-the-rest-of-us cartoon illustrations of the subject of Simon’s mathematical fascination.
What I liked most about this book was that it was different. Masters could have written a more distant, fact-filled, linear biography of Simon, complete with psychological theories on the ‘waste’ of Simon’s genius. The fact that he chose to highlight random bits and insert the relationship of biographer and biographee gives you more insight into who Simon actually is, and less insight into Simon’s arc of history. It’s an interesting choice, and probably a successful one: this book could easily have been boring, but it was highly entertaining.
Had I known when I picked it up that it was a biography of a real mathematical genius I never heard of instead of a fictional story about some eccentric living in a guy’s basement, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. But I did, and I’m glad of it.
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Lori B. Duff is an award-winning author who practices law on the side. Her latest book, “If You Did What I Told You…” is set to be released in the Fall of 2019. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriBDuff and on Facebook. For more blogs written by Lori, click here. For more information about Lori in general, click here. If you want Lori to do your writing for you, click here.