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A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America

I really enjoyed this historical walk through the history of people being in to numbers. Since I’ve been a kid, math was just a thing you were supposed to know and it was taken for granted that in fact you needed to know math in order to be a fully fledged person. It would come up in everything and it was essential in order to have a job, run a household or understand things. This was not always the case. Cohen goes back through Colonial times to talk about why we started counting things and what the weird messy in-between times were like when some people were numerically literate and some were not.

Of particular interest to me were the attempts at various censuses--ostensibly taken for taxation purposes but actually used for things such as making a case for slavery, of all things. The long sad case of the terrible mess that was the 1840’s census is a much better story than you would really think it should be. All the chapters are like that, starting with some sort of dry topic like “When did math start to be taught in schools?” you wind up with a bunch of fun anecdotes and definitive research that not only answers the questions but makes them even more fascinating in hindsight. A really enjoyable book.