Is There Genius in Madness?

Do you have a crazy genius in your life? From Jung and Dexter to myths and perils, here’s a sampling of creative madness.

Can a Genius's Life Be Laugh-Out-Loud Funny?

Biographer writes creatively about an aging math prodigy.


Simon: The Genius in My Basement is a quirky, one-of-a-kind nonfiction book detailing the interplay of a math genius and the biographer who would capture his essence. It's by Alexander Masters, who also wrote the critically acclaimed and bestselling Stuart: A Life Backwards.

To Simon Phillips Norton, facts matter much more than they do to his biographer. It's amusing that the author allows his subject to speak (conversationally and via email exchanges), and Masters wryly incorporates those corrections into the narrative.

Simon, born in 1952 in Cambridge, England, was a math prodigy who won prizes at an early age. As an adult, after the mathematician with whom he worked most closely left the country, Simon became much less productive. His contract to teach wasn't renewed and he's been independent ever since. Though some believe he lost his genius around then, he denies it. And his biographer says Simon's a happy man.

To enhance the story, Masters includes candid photos, amusing sketches, and illustrations of incredibly complicated concepts ("finite simple groups," which are anything but) by means of squares with their feet sticking out or triangles toppling over and saying "Eek."

A lot of Simon's time these days is spent riding on buses, collecting bus schedules, and attending meetings of an activist group whose aim is to reduce the use of cars and open up more accessible bus routes.

One reviewer got it exactly right when he stated:

Masters builds up a collage-like composite of Simon's genius and examines the nature of genius itself (which is never achieved through mere labour, he concludes, but only through "delight").

In fact, re: the importance of delight to Simon, here is what Masters wrote:

It’s all very well saying that what you need is 10,000 hours of study to become a genius at a subject, but the genius is not in the hours, it’s in what makes you want to do such a foul amount of study: unless it’s delight, you won’t get a genius at the end of that time, you’ll need to get a shovel to scoop up a suicide.

Simon is a stereotypical recluse (living on canned mackerel in cluttered rooms in unwashed clothes, obsessed with bus schedules). The question of whether he has Asperger's syndrome is discussed here (from a feature profile on National Public Radio)

"Everyone thinks about that the instant they see him," Masters says. But the author didn't want to bring this question into the book, and readers won't find the word "autism" anywhere in it. "It seems to me, you take Simon as Simon is," Masters explains. "If you're born with this degree of genius, this degree of capacity, you're going to grow up a bit weird."

Masters doesn't make fun of his genius subject, and Simon isn't particularly funny as a person or a biography subject, yet the creatively described interplay of the two personalities makes this a marvelous book.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry


Is There Genius in Madness?