Since a lot of my review of John Green’s Looking for Alaska compared it to his second novel, I thought I would share my reaction to An Abundance of Katherines as well. This is a short paper from a couple years ago. Both the reading and the assignment were for a class on academic literacy–thus the opinion on whether I would use the book in a classroom.
John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines tells the story of Colin Singleton, a former child prodigy who has just been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine. To get over the heartbreak his friend Hassan takes him on a road trip; the two end up in Gutshot, a small Tennessee factory town, where they are taken in by Lindsey and her mother Hollis. Colin, in a double effort to do something that important and win back his latest ex, decides to develop a Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability which he hopes will explain his failed relationships. During their stay, Colin and Hassan broaden their horizons by taking chances on new experiences (such as hog hunting), and learn more about life, others, and themselves.
image from fantasticfiction.co.uk
Despite Colin’s current fixation on math his true interest is words, and a key subplot of the story focuses on the importance of stories. Hollis recognizes that Gutshot may die out within a few generations, and sends the teenagers out to collect memories and anecdotes from all the long-time residents as a record of its life and vibrancy. In the process Colin learns about what makes a good story, and the role that memory plays in defining events.
The book has several different layers that intertwine as the characters learn and grow; one of these is what it really means to matter. Even though Colin is extremely bright, he continually doubts his own worth and struggles with insecurity in all his relationships, largely because he is a social outcast. He and Lindsey eventually realize, however, that is it more important to be yourself and pursue who and what matters to you than to try and matter to someone else. People will be valued more when they define themselves rather than try and fit in to the definitions set by others. This message of individuality (hinted at in Colin’s last name) is juxtaposed, however, with one of solidarity, exemplified by Hollis supporting the town out of her own pocket.
Oddly enough, in taking on Colin’s persona the author is guilty of the same storytelling and conversational faults that his character is criticized for. Colin constantly references uninteresting trivia or creates anagrams, and Green frequently does this as well in footnotes to the text that can distract from the story at hand. Some of the footnotes, however, are interesting and serve a purpose, such translating the Arabic words Hassan uses. These author interjections could be a starting point for a discussion on looking up unknown information.
image from fantasticfiction.co.uk
Though personally I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I’m not sure of the extent to which I would use it in the classroom. It’s better to be on the cautious side when considering whether material is appropriate, and the mild cursing and nudity probably place this book on the PG-13 level, though it is pretty tame compared to a lot of other things that are out there. I think it would be best used in an Algebra II or higher class where the students would have the background to further investigate the formulas and would be closer in age to the characters.
The actual math in the book is more conceptual than computational, and though the author professes an affinity for the subject he states that the math behind the theorem is long and boring, and relegates it to an optional appendix. This does, however, make the concept itself more accessible, as Lindsey claims to hate math but is interested in the ideas behind the theorem.
I would most likely only use an excerpt or two from the book dealing specifically with the theorem and the idea that math can describe events or tell a story, with questions for the students to reflect on. However, I would recommend the entire thing to them, and wouldn’t mind using it in conjunction with an English class, where they would be able to devote more time to discussing some of the other themes of the book and could spend more than a day on it. Though the book is a quick and enjoyable read, the ideas Green poses stay with the reader even after the story ends.