cover image Night is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995

Night is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995

Martin Gardner. St. Martin's Press, $29.95 (586pp) ISBN 978-0-312-14380-0

The title of Gardner's essays, which are drawn from an output of nearly 60 years, comes from Lord Dunsany's The Laughter of the Gods: ""A man is a small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders."" Substitute cosmos for night, and one has the principle behind the contents-a recapitulation, often involving the recycling of already recycled writings, of Gardner's polymath productivity. Recreational wisdom, much of it culled from his columns in Scientific American and reviews in the New York Review of Books, emerges in every essay, but not every essay is for every reader. Many are absorbing, some idiosyncratic, others abstruse. His intellectual heroes are from a variety of pursuits and times: Lewis Carroll, Oz creator L. Frank Baum, philosopher William James, fantasist G.K. Chesterton, mathematician Roger Penrose. Gardner's doghouse is more crowded and includes educator Robert Hutchins and his ""Great Books"" missionary Mortimer Adler, Sigmund Freud for ""an absence of empirical underpinning,"" Steven Spielberg for his ""tooth fairy"" Close Encounters of the Third Kind, T.S. Eliot for cramped thinking, Arthur Conan Doyle and dozens of other seemingly intelligent souls for succumbing to spiritualism and other pseudosciences and religious orthodoxies. Also unspared are supply-side economists such as Arthur Laffer, and literary cranks promoting alternative authors of Shakespeare's plays and grubbing for profundities in Finnegans Wake. ""My own opinion,"" he contends, ""is that the gullibility of the public today makes citizens of the nineteenth century look like hard-nosed skeptics."" Essays are prefaced by background data and postscripted by paragraphs, often amusing, on their reception. (July)