Pi Day: Books That Use Numbers in Fascinating Ways

Pi Day: Books That Use Numbers in Fascinating Ways

Pi Day: It brings out the math geek in all of us. March 14 (3/14) is an officially recognized annual celebration of the mathematical constant pi (the first three digits of which are 3.14.). The number, usually depicted with an HTML-unfriendly symbol resembling a squiggly post and lintel, represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Circles being what they are (that is, mathematically weird), the number goes on forever, retreating decimal place by decimal place into infinity. Pi’s mathematical importance, and the memorization competitions that tend to spring up around it, have made it one of the most beloved figures in all of math.But why are we talking about pi? Book people hate math—right? Not so fast: It turns out that numbers figure into some of our favorite books more than we math-section-of-the-SAT-flunking bibliophiles might be willing to admit. So, on this day devoted to the celebration of all things numerical, let’s take a look at some of the works—classic and contemporary—that do fun, and sometimes amazing, things with numbers. Let the two long-warring cultures—Jane Austen and TI-83—unite!

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    1. King James Bible

    The number: 46
    The importance: We don’t often think of the Bible as a venue for cryptic literary invention, but, according to some, the King James version contains an elaborate allusion to Shakespeare. In Psalms 46, the 46th word from the beginning is “shake,” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” Going further, the Bible was being prepared for printing in the year 1610, when the famed playwright was—what else?—46 years old.

    Shakespeare is thought to have been an influence on the translators of the Bible, and some claim he even did work on it himself. But it’s unclear whether he had a hand in this passage, or if it was the just work of some clever admirers. Or, if it’s just an amazing coincidence. In any case, it makes for one fantastic literary numbers puzzle.

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    2. Lolita

    The number: 52
    The importance: Aside from its ostensible themes of obsessive love and predation, Lolita is also a story about chance, one-upmanship, game-playing, and chicanery—all concepts that can be symbolized by the metaphor of playing cards. And so it goes that 52—the number of cards in a standard deck— shows up repeatedly throughout the novel. Humbert Humbert writes a poem that contains 52 lines; he and Lolita are on their road trip for one year, i.e., 52 weeks; his nemesis Clare Quilty’s license plate numbers—Q32888 and CU88322—add up to 52; the action of the novel ends in the year 1952, with two major characters dying on December 25 (52 reversed); and just guess how many days Humbert Humbert spends in jail—that’s right: 52. We all knew that Nabokov was an expert technician when it came to language, but his facility with number-play is truly astounding.

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    3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1)

    The number: 7
    The importance: The number seven: Is it lucky or unlucky? It’s hard to tell, given its prominence in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which, as any fan knows, is rife as with as much serendipity as it is misfortune. Aside from there being seven books in the series, the number lurks in pretty much every corner of Hogwarts: students go to the school for seven years; Hogwarts has seven floors; seven is the age by which it is believed magical powers will begin to show in a young wizard or witch. There are seven players on a Quidditch team; seven snakes on the door to the Chamber of Secrets; and, perhaps most famously, Voldemort created seven Horcruxes. The list of all things seven in Harry Potter, which is extensive (it might take you seven hours to read through), can be found at the Harry Potter wiki.

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    4. The Lord of the Rings

    The number: 9
    The importance: The number nine shows up in The Lord of the Ringsalmost as much as its pal seven shows up in Harry Potter. There are nine Nazgûl (wielders of the nine Rings for Mortal Men), and nine fellowship members to match them. In addition, the number of people to touch the One Ring was nine. Tolkien’s usage of the number may stem from one of his influences, Medieval Christian astrology, which celebrated the idea of nine as a “trinity of trinities.”

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    5. The Hunger Games: Official Illustrated Movie Companion

    The number: 12
    The importance: You don’t have to exert yourself too much to detect the importance of the number 12 in The Hunger Games. There are 12 districts in Panem (Katniss and Peeta being from the 12th); tributes become eligible at age 12; and there are 12 arrows in the quiver in the arena. The book also contains many variations on 12: 24 tributes in all compete; 24 dresses are designed for Katniss; and in the Quarter Quell arena, lightning strikes at noon and midnight. The repetition of 12 prompts readers to wonder if there might some allusive significance behind the number. 12 is obviously an important figure in the measurement of time; but it’s also one of the numbers (along with 40) to crop up frequently in the Bible, most notably with the 12 apostles of Jesus. And at least one commenter has drawn connections between Hunger Games and the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel, which historically was comprised of 12 tribes.

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    6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    The number: 42
    The importance: For whatever reason, in the world of Hitchhiker, 42 is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, the product of a 7.5-million-year computer calculation. Keeping in mind the comic absurdity of the book, it’s probably safe to assume the number is random. But there do happen to be some cool things about 42. For instance, it’s the precise angle (“the critical angle”) at which a rainbow appears to an observer.


  1. Add Marcus Sedgwick’s She is not Invisible to this list! He uses the number 354 in so many was (chapter titles, number of pages, one chapter of 354 words is written with a pattern (a three letter word, a five letter word, a four letter word), the 354th word is coincidence (what the book is about), the whole book is 354 x 137 (the fine structure constant) words, and the list goes on…and its a very sweet book with wonderful characters…

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