Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I am looking for fun, interesting mathematics textbooks which would make good studious holiday gifts for advanced mathematics undergraduates or beginning graduate students. They should be serious but also readable.

In particular, I am looking for readable books on more obscure topics not covered in a standard undergraduate curriculum which students may not have previously heard of or thought to study.

Some examples of suggestions I've liked so far:

  • On Numbers and Games, by John Conway.
  • Groups, Graphs and Trees: An Introduction to the Geometry of Infinite Groups, by John Meier.
  • Ramsey Theory on the Integers, by Bruce Landman.

I am not looking for pop math books, Gödel, Escher, Bach, or anything of that nature.

I am also not looking for books on 'core' subjects unless the content is restricted to a subdiscipline which is not commonly studied by undergrads. (E.g. Finite Group Theory by Isaacs would be good, but Abstract Algebra by Dummit and Foote would not.)

share|cite|improve this question
How about Kassel's Braid Groups?… – Alexander Gruber Dec 24 '12 at 3:05
@ZevChonoles I think this should be made CW. – Alex Becker Dec 24 '12 at 3:12
How about Fourier Analysis, T.W. Korner, Cambridge University Press, 1988? (the "o" in "Korner" needs an umlaut, but I can't seem to get one there...) – David Mitra Dec 24 '12 at 3:37
@Zev I've asked some time ago on meta: Should questions about book recommendations be CW? – Martin Sleziak Dec 24 '12 at 8:27
What about the Princeton Companion? It would be excellent for someone at that stage of mathematical life – m_t_ Dec 24 '12 at 14:41

37 Answers 37

  • Check into Generatingfunctionology by Herbert Wilf.

    From the linked (author's) site, the second edition is available for downloading as a pdf. There is also a link to the third edition, available for purchase.

    It's a very helpful, useful, readable, fun, (and short!) book that a student could conceivably cover over winter break.

  • Another promising book by John Conway (et. al.) is The Symmetries of Things, which may very well be of interest to students.

  • One additional suggestion, as it is a classic well worth being placed on any serious student's bookshelf: How to Solve It by Georg Polya.
share|cite|improve this answer
+1 for Wilf. One of the great combinatorics texts of all time. – Mathemagician1234 Dec 24 '12 at 6:04
+1 for Conway too; I picked up The Symmetries of Things as a gift for myself this year and it's an absolute delight - I came here to post it myself! – Steven Stadnicki Dec 25 '12 at 4:32
+1 for Wilf, but almost -1 for Conway (although other works by Conway are definitely worth investigating). – Rhubbarb Dec 31 '12 at 9:54
The title is "generatingfunctionology". – Did Jan 18 '13 at 7:20
By these suggestions of books you gave a gift for all the community!! – user63181 Mar 20 '14 at 14:04

For a fun read, which has the additional advantage of dividing into independent chapters which can be consumed in bite-sized chunks over the holiday season, how about

Proofs from The Book, by Martin Aigner and Günter Ziegler

And +1 to the OP's initial suggestion of Conway's On Numbers and Games.

share|cite|improve this answer

I would gift "Visual Complex Analysis" by Needham. It is a very beautiful book with a deep geometric intuition about complex numbers that is not typically covered in an undergraduate complex analysis course. I would also gift Stillwell's "Roads to Infinity: The Mathematics of Truth and Proof", one of the most beautiful treatment of the infinity concept that I encountered and that does not stay at the undergraduate level.

share|cite|improve this answer
+1: I was also thinking of Visual Complex Analysis. – Jair Taylor Dec 24 '12 at 3:32
+1 for a terrific and unorthodox book. – Mathemagician1234 Dec 24 '12 at 6:01
How is it that one can find something so beautiful in visual complex analysis but desires to use a website that burns ones eyes. – John Riselvato Dec 24 '12 at 14:26

Julian Havil’s Gamma: Exploring Euler’s Constant is a very readable introduction to a number of topics tied together by connections with the Euler-Mascheroni constant $\gamma$, topics that in my experience seldom get more than a mention in an undergraduate curriculum. It’s not a textbook, but it’s not a popularization in the usual sense; call it a popularization for younger mathematicians.

Graham, Knuth, & Patashnik, Concrete Mathematics, is one of the most readable textbooks I’ve seen; some of the material in it may be covered in undergraduate courses in combinatorics or probability, but much of it will be unfamiliar.

share|cite|improve this answer
I actually bought Julian Havil's book to find a formula for the nth term of an harmonic progression (We had been taught AP, GP nth term formulas at school). I was disappointed at first that there was no formula, but then I learned so many interesting things about Harmonic series. On the other hand, Concrete maths was for the Josephus problem and Tower of Hanoi :) – Isomorphism Dec 27 '12 at 18:59
+1 for Concrete Mathematics. This is an extraordinary and wonderful book. – Rhubbarb Dec 31 '12 at 9:39

This is a great book on the art of inequalities. Lots of problems inside as well: Cauchy-Schwarz Inequality

Also available online in PDF form here:

Cauchy-Schwarz PDF

share|cite|improve this answer

I just got a hold on the book Primes of the Form $p=x^2+ny^2$ by David A. Cox and I think it has the required features.

In this book the author manages to present advanced algebraic number theory via historical point of view. He starts with the works of Fermat, Euler, and Gauss, and finishes with class field theory and complex multiplication.

I would certainly recommend this book as a fun and interesting book for an advance undergrad or beginning grad student (actually to anyone who likes number theory).

share|cite|improve this answer

The Sensual (Quadratic) Form, by John Conway.

I confess that I've only read the first chapter, but what I've read seems to fit the bill perfectly: Easily readable essays on an interesting topic that students don't normally see. Each chapter is independent from the others, and even many number theorists I know haven't heard of "topographs," the unique approach to visualizing quadratic forms that Conway develops in the first chapter.

EDIT: I want to add Proofs that Really Count by Art Benjamin and Jenny Quinn. Again, haven't read it myself, but I've met both the authors and seen them give (excellent) talks, and I've never heard anything but praise for this book.

share|cite|improve this answer
For another very nice book (in progress) that also discusses topographs, see Allen Hatcher's page for his "Topology of numbers", – Andrés E. Caicedo Dec 24 '12 at 7:31

Surreal Numbers by Knuth. A Novel which turns into pure mathematics.

share|cite|improve this answer

Here are some fun books on geometric topology:

Scorpan's book is much more difficult than the first two, but it's still suitable for many beginning graduate students.

Disclaimer: While I'm currently reading Scorpan's book, I haven't actually read either Weeks' or Adams' book. These are titles that I know from reputation and would eventually like to read myself.

share|cite|improve this answer

Two of my favorites are written by John Derbyshire. They both combine a historical narrative with mathematical discourse with plenty of charts and illustrations to help visualize concepts:

  • Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (Plume Books, 2003) ISBN 0-452-28525-9
  • Unknown Quantity: A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra (Joseph Henry Press, 2006) ISBN 0-309-09657-X
share|cite|improve this answer

I would highly suggest Matrix Groups for Undergraduates by Kristopher Tapp. This is extremely readable--you feel like you are doing little more than reviewing some linear algebra and analysis, but BAM you realize that you've just had an extremely gentle, but useful introduction to the basics of Lie groups.

share|cite|improve this answer

I suggest Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms by David MacKay. It is a book about Information Theory and codes, topics of great practical importance which aren't well covered in undergraduate courses. It has many exercises, some of which are very challenging. Opening it at random is bound to reveal something interesting, such as how the Bletchley Park codebreakers worked, what's the difference between British and American crosswords, and why we don't reproduce asexually. It requires a minimum of prior knowledge and is also a great introduction to probability and Bayesian statistics.

share|cite|improve this answer

I propose Counterexamples in Topology and Visual Group Theory.

Les nombres remarquables by François le Lionnais is also interesting, but it is written in French; I do not know if there is an equivalent in English, maybe The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers.

share|cite|improve this answer
People surely have different taste in books, but "Counterexamples in Topology" isn't what I would describe as "fun". – Dedalus May 30 '13 at 16:11

Look at Numbers, by Ebbinghaus and 7 co-authors. It has nice discussions about the real and complex numbers (aimed at mathematicians, not neophytes), and also the quaternions, octonions, p-adic numbers, and infinitesimals.

share|cite|improve this answer

I recommend Paul Halmos' Automathography for an account of an extremely interesting life in mathematics. It's a joy to read!

share|cite|improve this answer
Uh-this was on my list and I got downvoted 5 times for it. Someone explain,please? Beyond the obvious answer-someone with too much free time on thier hands has it in for me on this site.......... – Mathemagician1234 Dec 25 '12 at 22:41
@Mathemagician1234: It is likely that people downvoted your answer because you included Klaus Janich's Topology, Topological Methods In Euclidean Spaces by Gregory Naber, A Course In Algebra by E.B.Vinberg, and A First Course in Topology: Continuity and Dimension by John Mc Cleary, which do not seem to fit the OP's specifications. – Eric Naslund Dec 27 '12 at 7:51

I've not read it myself, but a friend told me he really enjoyed Robertson and Webb's Cake-Cutting Algorithms: Be Fair If You Can, which seems to be both mathematically serious and readable, and moreover is on a topic not usually covered in the undergraduate curriculum.

share|cite|improve this answer

Here are some of my favorite books in this category.

Real Infinite Series

A Radical Approach to Real Analysis

Counterexamples in Analysis

Galois Theory for Beginners

All of these are great for pedagogical purposes. They are all well written and accessible to any undergrad. The first one, even calculus students can appreciate. The next two teach and supplement any analysis course. The fourth one gives an excellent history and an introduction to Galois theory, how/why it began, why the quintic is impossible to solve in radicals, how Gauss made an algebraic connection to geometry and provided a construction of a regular 17-gon, and how three of the ancient geometric problems (doubling a cube, squaring a circle, and trisecting an angle) were proved impossible once and for all.

share|cite|improve this answer

Ronald Brown's Topology And Groupoids gives a highly original and unusual first course in topology through basic category theory and the fundamental groupoid instead of the fundamental group. This allows Brown to present homotopy constructions in a very geometric way and to exclude homology altogether.

share|cite|improve this answer

In addition to the other choices, maybe you want to think about some other types of books.

You might want to check out many of the books by Clifford Pickover.

Additionally, you might want to go through this large list of fascinating mathematical fiction books and titles and you might find interesting choices.

Have fun!

share|cite|improve this answer
I was just about to recommend a book from this author: The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics Very wide range of complexity and nice reading in general. – Dennis Jaheruddin Dec 24 '12 at 9:08

I personally did not read this, but a friend of mine read A History of Abstract Algebra by Israel Kleiner for a term paper he was writing. It was real good, especially the parts about Noether and Dedekind. From what I gather all the information came from this book. I plan to buy it soon myself.

share|cite|improve this answer

Imre Lakatos, Proofs and refutations: The logic of mathematical discovery

It's a joy to read and everybody will learn something new from it, even your math professor (if he didn't already read it).

share|cite|improve this answer

Modern Graph theory by Bela Bollobas counts as fun if they're interested in doing exercises which can be approached by clever intuitive arguments; it's packed full of them.

share|cite|improve this answer

Euler's Gem is a great book, you should check it out!

share|cite|improve this answer

Fifty challenging problems in probability. Here is a larger list. Hope it helps

share|cite|improve this answer

Here are several books that I have looked at frequently.

Proofs and Confirmations, David Bressoud

Winning Ways For your Mathematical Plays Vols. 1 to 4, Berlekamp, Conway, Guy

Integer Partitions, Andrews and Eriksson

Number Theory in Science and Communication, Schroeder

Fractals, Chaos, and Power Laws, Schroeder

The first part of The Road to Reality, Penrose contains a primer on the math required in modern physics.

share|cite|improve this answer
+1 for "Proofs and Confirmations" by David Bressoud. It is ridiculously good. – PeterR Jan 16 '13 at 16:55

I would suggest Graphs and their uses by Oystein Ore.

One can find there some game theory, shortest route problems, coloring maps on surfaces, etc. It is very pleasant to read.

share|cite|improve this answer
thanks very much for the recommendation; I bought the book for Christmas and found it really enlightening – RyanGrannell Feb 8 '13 at 5:44

Saunders MacLane, Mathematics Form and Function. I'm reading it right now. It gives a wonderful birds eye view of (undergraduate) mathematics. The book is mostly self-contained for undergraduates and upwards, but it certainly helps to know a lot of math already.

share|cite|improve this answer

Off the top, no particular order:

  • Conceptual Mathematics - Lawvere and Schanuel
  • Sets for Mathematics - Lawvere and Rosebrugh
  • A Walk Through Combinatorics - Bona
  • Combinatorial Species and Tree-Like Structures - Bergeron, Labelle & Leroux
  • Ordinary Differential Equations - Arnold
  • What Are and What's the Purpose of Numbers - Dedekind
  • Collected Works of Karl Menger - Menger
  • Algebraic Number Theory and Fermat's Last Theorem - Stewart

Just a couple if you're interested in applied areas:

  • Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic - Epstein
  • Theoretical Introduction to Programming - Mills
  • Elements of Statistical Learning - Hastie, Tibshirani & Friedman
share|cite|improve this answer

The Cartoon Guide to Calculus is an amazing book for calculus beginners and does satisfy all of the OP's needs.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.