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Ask a Bookseller: ‘The Maniac’

Ask a Bookseller Podcast
Ask a Bookseller

Chris Miller of Broadway Books in Portland, Ore., recommends the novel “The Maniac” by Benjamín Labatut.

The Maniac
“The Maniac” by Benjamín Labatut.
Penguin Random House

Labatut takes us back to the dawn of the nuclear age in his newest novel focusing us on John von Neumann (1903-57).

One of the mathematical minds behind the Manhattan Project, von Neumann invented game theory and designed the first programable computer, among other achievements that have a massive effect on the world today.

The title “Maniac” is apt for one that delves into the space between reason and madness. It also references that first computer, the MANIAC I (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer Model I).

Labatut deftly switches among voices whose lives touched von Neumann’s, incorporating family and friends, rivals and colleagues. Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein are among the voices.

Fascinated as Miller was to step into this fictional story, he found its modern-day reverberations onto Artificial Intelligence even more engaging.

“I don’t know how many answers the book gives you,” about AI, Miller says, “but it certainly kind of like lays the groundwork for like a good understanding of how we got here.”