8
$\begingroup$

I have been recommended a lot of times to read the classic texts. But I find them usually quite algorithmic and less thought provoking. It feels like they give way more importance to rigor than the proper understanding of the topic. Rigor is surely important I know but that should come after the understanding of the topic (like in the best modern day books). Also many methods feel like obsolete. So, what is your suggestion on the best way to utilize classic texts. Also, when learning some new math theory should the classics come first in preference of reading or should they be left for more rigorous understanding later on. I don't mean that classic texts are not at all useful. I think they provide a nice insight on how the theory developed (which is important to get the real significance of the subject) but I am asking about their validity as serious learning resources in modern day.

Note: When I say classic, I mean the ones like Hall and Knight, G H Hardy, SL Loney, etc. The ones like Euclid are some other category which I think is surely not for a first read and may be not even necessary, but highly recommended to be read to get a feel of the topic.

$\endgroup$

closed as primarily opinion-based by Shaun, José Carlos Santos, Daniel Pietrobon, Peter, MathematicsStudent1122 Jan 25 at 14:14

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Could you give explicit examples of classic and modern texts that you've read? And where they differ? $\endgroup$ – lhf Jan 25 at 13:01
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "classic"? Euclid? Newton? Bourbaki? There are a lot of very different "classic" texts that you're lumping together. $\endgroup$ – Robert Israel Jan 25 at 13:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Old math books are delightful. $\endgroup$ – Yves Daoust Jan 25 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Do books from Euclid actually still exist ? Whether a book is "obsolete" or not, is very subjective, but I think, every math book reasonably written with the necessary accuracy, can be interesting and useful. $\endgroup$ – Peter Jan 25 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Are older mathematics textbooks still "valid"? $\endgroup$ – MathematicsStudent1122 Jan 25 at 14:14
6
$\begingroup$

There are perils to reading old books. As an undergrad I looked at one edition of Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, and it kept talking about "vectors", but at that time, "vector" meant "quaternion". So you have things like "the real part of a vector" and "the vector part of a vector", and it's just baffling without a lot of context. And if you tried to read about quaternions in books from the same era, you'd be even worse off. There were also all these Fractur letters for things, and frankly, many of them looked so similar that I couldn't keep them apart in my head.

There are advantages, too. Seifert and Threllfall's book on algebraic topology is a revelation, because through their "algorithmic" approach to things, you see how certain ideas (like "chain homotopy", which always seemed mysterious to me...) actually arise naturally from trying to compute things.

In general, I'd favor reading a modern book to get a sense of the modern-day notation and language, and some key ideas, and then looking at older books to see some of the things that motivate modern choices. You also get to see ideas that seemed great at the time, but didn't get much traction. And you get to see how definitions evolved as well. A quick peek at Analysis Situs won't teach you much about topology, but looking at it after a first few topology courses may teach you a lot.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There's also the issue of knowing how recent an old book might be. For example the Kolmogoov book I'm using on analysis is less than 50 years old (it's from 1970) but never once uses the words surjective, injective or bijective. $\endgroup$ – timtfj Jan 25 at 17:39
3
$\begingroup$

The topic is very wide, but I'll try to give my opinion. I think that often it is not necessarily the maths that are obsolete, but the didactic approach of old books. Moreover, boundary breaking books were seldom made for beginners. I think that, nowadays and as a rule of thumb that might well have exceptions, the best way to start learning a new subject is to start from a beginner-friendly, modern book that puts a lot of emphasis on motivation and intuition, to get a feel of the subject, and only later try to get to the hard core, which might well be done through the original sources, when one is ready for them.

I might make an example from algebraic geometry, which is notoriously hard for beginners. Nobody would say that the best way to learn it is by going back to the original works of the Italian school and then follow the path of new developments until today. This might work, but it would take a huge lot of time. I think that a good starting point would be to spend some time on a modern book that approaches "concrete" problems, and then to get to schemes in the friendliest way possible, as they are fundamental nowadays, but also not so easy to tackle from a motivational point of view, as it is not immediately clear why they were introduced in the first place. I think that Vakil's "The rising sea - principles of algebraic geometry" does a very good job of mixing motivation, intuition and rigor. It is long but very pleasant to read and it lets you discover the important things by yourself - this is how an introductory book should feel like! Then, of course, one can still go back to older references, which are still valuable and not necessarily obsolete (Grothendieck is certainly not obsolete; and not that old, either. But the work of the Italian school might not be very rigorous, from a modern viewpoint).

As a summary and as a rule of thumb: the first books that appear about a subject are never meant to teach this subject to beginners. And, whereas some classic books are still valuable, just possibly a bit harder to tackle, for some (older) books one can really only have a (totally legitimate) historical interest, because they are very unrelated to how we do maths today.

$\endgroup$

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