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Practical LaTeX

George Grätzer
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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There is a marvelous passage very early on in the Sherlock Holmes opus by Conan-Doyle (I think it occurs already in A Study in Scarlet) in which Dr. Watson, the long-suffering narrator, who is later occasionally referred to by the great detective as “my Boswell,” laments that Holmes’s knowledge of a number of things every educated person should know is next to nil. For example, Holmes, it turns out, is altogether ignorant of the Copernican system in astronomy and upon being told about it by Watson remarks that he (Holmes) will now do his best to forget it: he regards his memory as a well-stocked cup-board with finite capacity, so that after a while important things can get displaced by useless ones; obviously the world’s first (and, at the time, its only) consulting detective had no need for astronomy if his encyclopedic knowledge of poisons or the annals and history of crime were to be put at risk.

And then, much closer to our mathematical home, there is the following famous anecdote about Hilbert recounted by Constance Reid in her definitive biography: it seems a young number theorist (as I recall: it’s probably a personal bias massaging my selective memory) came to pay a call on the great man in the latter’s old age and proceeded to talk about his work. In the course of his remarks he quoted a critical result at which point Hilbert interrupted with the question: “But that is a beautiful result — who proved it?” The young man answered awkwardly, “But that was you, Herr Geheimrat.” Hilbert then said, “Oh, I did away with memory long ago. It interferes with creative thought.” (All this with my apologies for possible misquotes, &c.)

I have presented two of my favorite heroes, one fictional, one quite real, in defense of a position of mine that, I think, is really very widespread among mathematicians (and I’ll count Sherlock Holmes as a fellow traveller: just witness his acknowledgement of Moriarty’s gifts — the Napoleon of crime was, after all, a mathematician “whose work on the binomial theorem [had] had a European vogue,” if I remember the quote correctly). We don’t like to think about things that take away from our pursuit of the great art of mathematics, as such, and get downright intransigent when faced with anything that would threaten our freedom to live our mathematical lives by our own rules. And I certainly suffer from this condition in spades: I kick like a mule in the direction of anything that would mess with my mathematical tranquility.

For example: I have over the years stubbornly refused to learn TeX or even LaTeX. Until a few years ago, my department had a fabulous secretary (one of those rare and wonderful people who patiently take care of the horde of frazzled and neurotic arrested juveniles — another phrase from Reid’s book — populating mathematics departments) who happily took all my handwritten manuscripts and transformed them into TeX and LaTeX for me, all without complaining. Her tenure with us included the horrible time of transition in which the mathematical community was entirely seduced by TeXnology, to coin a phrase (surely someone else has thought of this long before me), during which almost everyone set out to learn the new language and the new ways. Well, not me! So Cathy learned it (well) and so facilitated my titanic intransigence. But she retired! I did not give an inch, though: I launched a whine in the direction of our Dean, describing the tragedy of Cathy’s retirement and asked for him to mitigate the catastrophe by buying me a (pricey) software package that would allow me to write my papers’ manuscripts in a point-and-click environment and then typeset them in LaTeX simply at the push of a button (or two). And, bless him, he went for it; I’ve written a number of articles in precisely this manner. It’s not as good as Cathy, of course: I still have to spend a lot of time at my computer instead of being able to rest after the handwritten manuscript is done. So there is some bullet-biting to be done, but so be it.

But TeXnology marches on and the Golem is still not satisfied: journals are starting to work with required LaTeX shells and I’ve begun to come across certain problems with my beloved ersatz LaTeX fix that seem to require real LaTeX. Can it be that I can run but ultimately cannot hide? Well, maybe. And therefore I am looking at the book under review: Can Grätzer, a mathematician whose work I know of, sugarcoat this pill which I may at last have to swallow?

Of course, Grätzer’s history with LaTeX and AMSLaTeX is well-known and reassuring: he is the redoubtable author of Math Into LaTeX and More Math Into LaTeX, coming in at over 500 pages each. The man certainly knows his LaTeX, and his reasons for become a LaTeX maven are honorable: the 2005 interview indicates that Grätzer is a very serious mathematician interested in getting his (and, by extension, our) papers and books into proper TeX format as quickly and expeditiously as possible, but he is certainly not a CS zealot who is into it for a perverse sense of fun. (I’m sure the CS types feel this way about us, but who cares? We were there first, of course.) Nonetheless the aforementioned ca. 1000 pages of LaTeXnologese is still well beyond what I’m willing to deal with. And this raises the question: do I want to learn what’s in the much, much shorter book under review? Well, in a word, yes. Or let me say this a little differently (and more honestly): if I really, really have to learn LaTeX, this is the book I’ll go to in a flash.

For one thing, Grätzer writes for spoiled, intransigent, and impatient mathematicians: if this is what you want, here’s how to do it. He gives the reader a load of relevant examples, coupled with verbatim LaTeXt (I couldn’t resist…) to get it done. It’s all spelled out in a way accessible even to a stubborn Jurassic mule like me. And he peppers the book with aleph null “Practical Rules” such as “\end {comment} must be at the beginning of a line by itself [and] [t]here can be no comment within a comment…” This bit of important wisdom is followed by the meta-statement, “The comment environment can be very useful in locating errors.” Indeed. And it is wonderful (and eminently practical) that Grätzer has distinguished TeXspeak from ordinary text by using the according font distinction. Ah, yes, it’s a brave new world.

Finally, despite its relatively modest length of a little over 200 pages, a decent spectrum of boots-on-the-ground stuff is covered. Grätzer gives us the necessary bits in the opening chapters, titled: “Mission Impossible” (yes, I’m with you — but at the bottom of p.6 Grätzer says, “Relax, this chapter will not self-destruct in five seconds.” By the way, are there any other Martin Landau + Barbara Bain fans reading this?), “Text” (OK, can’t be avoided), “Text environments” (It’s getting dense now), “Inline formulas” (Naturellement), “Displayed formulas” (Oui, encore: naturellement), and then the clincher, “Documents.” This takes us roughly halfway through the book; the remainder concerns such sexy stuff as customizing LaTeX, doing illustrations, and even an appendix on LaTeX on the iPad. Whoa!

Well, I don’t think there’s much else to say. Even at a first glance or at first browse it’s abundantly clear that this is a very good book for a TeXtyro like me, and I’m loath to admit that some part of me (maybe it can still be suppressed …) is tempted to start playing with the routines in the book: it’s that well done. On the other hand, what would cousin Sherlock say…?

All kidding aside, Practical LaTeX does not disappoint. It’s eminently practical and therefore eminently worthwhile.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.