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Books

How to Read Numbers by Tom Chivers and David Chivers: Light and fun

It’s not easy to make balance sheets and stats fun – Stephen Bush is impressed

How to Read Numbers, the joint work of David Chivers and his cousin, Tom Chivers, is a book that takes on the tricky task  of communicating numbers in letters.

David is an assistant professor of economics at Durham University, while Tom is a science writer and author, including of another excellent book, The Rationalist’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Tom was also one of my superiors when I started out in journalism, so I worried at first that the prospect of reading a book about how journalists misunderstand, mistreat and mangle statistics felt unnervingly like sitting down for a telling-off.

But part of the joy of How To Read Numbers is how light and fun it is.

This is a book by two people who in different ways are well versed in communicating complex subjects in a way that doesn’t make their audiences feel small. (One thing the book does very well is provide the odd optional box in which mathematical concepts you may have known once and forgotten, or simply not known at all, are helpfully explained to aid your journey through it.)

At the end of the process, you’ll be better equipped to understand what it means when a glass of red wine can both increase and decrease your chances of getting cancer, how many portions of fruit and veg you need to eat each day, and any number of stories about numbers you might read or hear.

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The only problem for me is that while How To Read Numbers is a brilliant bit of writing about numbers, they haven’t got me any closer to being able to do it well myself.

Maybe I can persuade the Cousins Chivers to write a sequel called How to Write Numbers.

How to Read Numbers by Tom Chivers and David Chivers is out now (W&N, £12.99)

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