How Numbers Can Tell Stories
by Aubrey Leaman
So let’s talk about math! I know, I know…as readers we tend to hate math, right? But Francie Nolan (from Betty Smith’s novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”) has a passion for both words and numbers and in fact combines the two in creative ways:
“When Francie added a sum, she would fix a little story to go with the result…The figure 1 was a pretty baby girl just learning to walk, and easy to handle…Each single combination of numbers was a new set-up for the family and no two stories were ever the same.”
When I read this passage (of which I’ve only quoted a small amount here), I was blown away by the wonder and magic of it all. In effect, Francie is like a Victor Frankenstein who imbues life into the meaningless, dead conglomeration of body parts around him. Now those numbers that were once “dead” are living and breathing people who have unique personalities and ways of life!
Then when she adds these numbers/people together, depending on what numbers she’s using and what number she ends up with, she imagines a story: “If the answer was 924, it meant that the little boy and girl were being minded by company while the rest of the family went out.” The whole thing is a lot like the joke that asks why 6 is afraid of 7 (because 7 8 9)—but on steroids.
In any case, this idea is so creative and amazing that I could scream. I just love how something as rigid, boring, and clinical (to many people) as math can be transformed into something so engaging and meaningful (to the book-lover) as stories. But before I have a riot on my hands, I’m not saying that math isn’t important or even that it’s uninteresting. I actually enjoy math in many cases. I’m just saying that turning such an abstract concept into stories provides something more concrete to hold on to and connect with.
But can numbers really be described as people? Or are we just seeing the results of an overactive child’s mind? Well, sure, her ideas cannot be mathematically proven (pun so intended) and sometimes they’re stretched way beyond the reader’s comprehension. But does that really make them any less valuable? There is some basis for her personifications, after all, including age and other things. And I’ve certainly never been this excited about math before. What do you think? (Feel free to comment below!)
So all of this made me wonder: what other “dull” or mundane occurrences could we imagine stories for? What run of the mill things are crouching in the shadows, just waiting for their artistic beauty to be discovered?
1) Balancing equations in Chemistry
2) Paying bills
4) Choosing what to wear
5) Temperature changes and/or weather
7) Classical music (which I personally enjoy doing!)
But the possibilities are literally endless.
Which brings me to this last simple but profound question: isn’t it incredible how truly endless the imagination is? I’ve always been fascinated by the line from the movie “Miracle on 34th Street” (1940s version) where Kris Kringle asks little Susan, “How would you like to have a ship all to yourself that makes daily trips to China and Australia? How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty in the morning, and in the afternoon fly south with a flock of geese?” Francie may be young in Betty Smith’s novel and Susan may be young in that movie, but you don’t have to be a child to have an imagination (as I’m sure you as book-readers know). It is a part of all of us.
In the end, everything tells a story. All we have to do is listen.