Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World

February 12, 2014 | 8 5 min read

570_Martin Gardner

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

covercovercovercoverI first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation.

coverBut now comes the sad denouement. I have just finished Martin Gardner’s last book. Gardner died in 2010 at the age of 95, with more than 100 books to his credit, and his final work, a posthumously published memoir entitled Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, was recently released by Princeton University Press. Here my guru and sage brought together, over the course of two hundred pages, the full range of his interests — math, magic, philosophy, stories, poetry, science, religion, politics — and combined these disparate topics with an account of his private life and intellectual development.

I enjoyed every page of this book. Gardner’s own path to mathe-magical stardom fascinated me, but his frank, colorful accounts of the many smart and influential people he met along the way are equally compelling. What a cast of characters! Here you will encounter Mortimer Adler, the tireless advocates of “great books” education; Isaac Asimov, a populist intellectual similar to Gardner in so many ways; scam-debunker James Randi, philosopher Rudolf Carnap, author Thornton Wilder, social critic Paul Goodman, artist Salvador Dalí, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, and many other intriguing individuals. But the star is always Gardner himself, the man who can mix so easily with such diverse demigods, show them a trick or puzzle, or tell them something they’ve never heard before.

James Randi tries to explain Gardner’s peculiar appeal in an afterword to Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. Wherever he traveled, Randi would find himself “mobbed as soon as my acquaintance with Martin came up for discussion.” He recalls a lecture he gave to a group of IBM systems engineers, who “besieged” him afterwards, trying to learn more about Mr. Gardner. They wanted Randi to “settle whether or not Martin was an actual individual, or perhaps an amalgamation of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and maybe a magician colleague of mine…They were appropriately amazed and edified when I assured them that this paragon was actually a single person, a real human being, and quite as accomplished as he appeared to be.” I should add, for those unaware of Mr. Randi, that he is sometimes known as the “Amazing Randi” — a name he picked up as a magician and continued to earn in later years as a detector of frauds in the fields of parapsychology and occultism. How revealing that the Amazing Randi should find that his friend Martin Gardner is, in the minds of his audience, far more amazing.

How does one get to be as amazing as Martin Gardner? I’m sure I’m not the only reader who picked up this book seeking an answer to that very question. What secret skill or inborn gift allowed this youngster from Tulsa, Oklahoma to learn so much about so many subjects? Gardner’s modesty, evident throughout this book, makes it hard to pierce the mystery. But clearly his unflagging curiosity played a key part, as well as his connoisseur’s taste for the cryptic, the beguiling, and the enchanting. The same penetrating scrutiny that led him to discover the workings of a magic trick or the solution of a mathematical puzzle also spurred him to decipher literary texts and scientific theories or anything else that came within his purview. In other words, Gardner succeeded so well at his work because, for him, it never seemed like work. He only wrote about subjects that captivated him, and this overpowering enthusiasm was apparent to his readers, who usually came to share it.

Even those who think they know Martin Gardner well will learn new things about him in Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. He analyzes political topics that rarely showed up in his books. He outlines his own theory of religion, a peculiar hybrid of belief and disbelief that will probably irritate atheists, Christians, pantheists, and members of every other sect and anti-sect with its fanciful explanations. Above all, we get a sense of Gardner the family man, as husband, son, father, and grandfather, and learn — what we probably surmised from his good-natured, gentle writing — that he handled these familial roles with grace and devotion.

coverThese may be Martin Gardner’s final words, but they aren’t the last words on Martin Gardner. Those who want to understand his intellectual development in more detail will want to read many of his other works, most notably The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, which takes on many themes developed in Undiluted Hocus-Pocus and draws them out in greater detail. And there is still a need for biography by an outside party who can tell the story of this remarkable man in more detail than this 200-page memoir offers. But for the time being, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus is the best short guide to a man with a very long CV. If you don’t know the most interesting man in the world, start with this appetizer, but be ready to come back for more.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

writes on music, literature, and popular culture. His next book, Music: A Subversive History, will be published by Basic Books next year.