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'Naming Infinity' by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor; 'Listening Below the Noise' by Anne D. LeClaire; 'Stalking Irish Madness' by Patrick Tracey.

March 22, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds

Naming Infinity

A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity

Loren Graham and

Jean-Michel Kantor

Harvard University Press: 230 pp., $25.95

The Jesus Prayer -- "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" -- has inspired controversy and literature since its creation in the 4th century by the desert mystics, hermits in the Palestinian desert. These mystics would repeat the prayer hundreds of times, synchronized with their breath to "obtain quietness by physical and mental fusion with God," write Jean-Michel Kantor and Loren Graham. In one of the monasteries of Mount Athos, in Greece, monks who repeated the Jesus Prayer were known as Name Worshippers. In 1913 the Russian Orthodox Church, which had proclaimed the Name Worshippers heretics for confusing the name of God with God himself, ordered Marines to storm the monastery. One thousand monks were arrested. Name Worshipping remained popular, and in this remarkable book, Kantor and Graham show how it worked its way into the hallowed halls of Russian mathematics. In the early 20th century, mathematicians grappled with the concept of infinity, relying heavily on set theory to prove and define it. The French mathematicians, rationalists not fond of abstraction (particularly abstractions with spiritual overtones), went head-to-head with the Russians, who had always linked mathematics to philosophy, religion and ideology. Name Worshipping played a key role in bringing the two closer together. Graham and Kantor do a beautiful job of fleshing out the key players in this gripping drama -- nothing less than a struggle to prove the existence of God.

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Listening Below the Noise

A Meditation on the

Practice of Silence

Anne D. LeClaire

Harper: 226 pp., $19.95

"Research shows that Americans spend an average of 974 hours a year listening to radio, 1,555 hours watching television, 86 hours playing video games, and 195 hours using the Internet," writes Anne D. LeClaire. On a whim in 1992, LeClaire, tired of multi-tasking, tired of her constant chattiness and efforts to "fix" everything for everyone around her, began setting aside one day a week (Mondays) as days when she would not speak. At first, family and friends were annoyed. But LeClaire, a writer, began to notice that each Monday brought a new lesson. LeClaire comes to understand the importance of silence and solitude for creativity.

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Stalking Irish Madness

Searching for the Roots of My

Family's Schizophrenia

Patrick Tracey

Bantam: 272 pp., $24

Two of Patrick Tracey's four sisters, his grandmother and great-grandmother on his mother's side and one uncle led lives severely warped by schizophrenia. In this odd quest, Tracey travels to the family's ancestral land of County Roscommon, Ireland, "the bog of no return," and visits the Cave of the Cat, the doorway to the fairy kingdom. Fairies were thought to capture the minds of people who went insane. At the heart of Tracey's quest are the questions about the hopscotch that is his family's genetic predisposition: Why them? Why not me?

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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