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NON-FICTION | REVIEWS IN BRIEF

A Journey Into the Number 13. By Jonathan Cott. (Doubleday: $15.95, 192 pp.)

April 13, 1997|ALEXANDER THEROUX | Alexander Theroux is the author of "The Primary Colors," and "The Secondary Colors" (Holt)

"When I first began thinking about the number 13," Jonathan Cott writes in this compact little book, which, with its sidebars and easy digressions, feels more than anything else like a familiar essay, "I paused to consider the following: At the time of writing this book, my age was a multiple of 13; the number of my apartment building was made up of the numbers 4+2+7; my telephone number included the number 13 and a multiple of 13 in it; and the numerological value of my last name was also equal to the number 13." And so, "A Journey Into the Number 13" works outward, relying more on random interviews and quotations than hard scholarship.

"I don't consider myself a superstitious person," says Cott, not a triskaidekaphobe (a person who fears the number 13), he insists, and then proceeds to tell us that this is not only his 13th book but that after doing much of its research he began to realize that this was indeed a number that disturbed him.

It is a kind of open-ended journey, in fact a casual tour around this sinister, "calumniated number and its baleful reputation, offering explanations for that judgment and documenting its value through a select literature of myth and mysticism, culture and conditioning. Is it simply a prime number that succeeds 12 and proceeds 14? When did "creepitude" first apply to it? And why? Even though Cott fails to give round and satisfying--historically solid insightful--answers to such questions, much of the book is pure fun. Cott can wax absurd as well. Am I missing something or is it relevant to his study that 13,000 gallons of Gatorade were dispensed at water stations at the 1995 New York Marathon? That the Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken has not missed a game in 13 years? That the film "Apollo 13" grossed $26 million (13 times two) in its first weekend showings in the United States? Much, alas, is made of multiples in "A Journey Into the Number 13," by which, I dare say, numerologically speaking, little can't be proven about any number.

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