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The Joy of Set Book Review

Princeton University Press contacted me back in October to see if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of an upcoming release in exchange for a review on my blog.  When I saw that it was a math-y read, I accepted.  They sent me a copy of The Joy of SET.  

joy of set book review

It arrived at the beginning of November, and I meant to read it but the end of the semester is always pure craziness.  It doesn’t help that I’m teaching 4 different preps this year when I’m accustomed to always having 3.  One extra class to prep for does make a big difference!  I promised myself I would make time to read it and review it over Christmas break, but I ended up battling strep throat and a minor cold over break.  January has treated me with another cold (this time much more severe!), but I’m finally on the mend and feeling better.  I’m currently in the midst of a four-day weekend thanks to ice and Martin Luther King, Jr Day, so I’m finally making time to read this amazing book.

First off, I LOVE the game of SET.  At my house, you will find the original SET game.  I received this game for free for attending a SET session at my local math teachers’ circle.

You will also find the mini round version of SET .  The original SET game has 81 cards that come in solid, striped, and empty shapes.  The mini round version has only 27 cards which are all solid.

I also own SET Dice.

If you are not familiar with SET, it is a card game that can be played alone or with a group that relies on pattern recognition.  Here’s the basic rules courtesy of the SET company.

Though I now love the game of SET, this has not always been so.  I remember reading blog posts mentioning SET for years.  The SET website has a daily SET game on their website that I attempted one day.  I could not figure it out for the life of me which made me feel like maybe I wasn’t really cut out to be a math teacher!

Link to Daily Set Puzzle:

Thankfully, when I went to the SET session at Math Teachers’ Circle, I was seated with a few ladies who already knew how to play the game.  They were SUPER patient with me and let me make mistakes and learn from them.  Once I figured out the rules for the game, I realized it was actually FUN!

I was eager to share the game with my students once I knew how it worked!  In my own classroom, I have found this animated, interactive tutorial super effective for introducing students to the game.

I have had some students become super obsessed with the SET game!  One year, I had a student beg to take a deck home over the weekend so she could play with her mom.

What I love about The Joy of SET book is that it is written in such a way that it can be read and enjoyed by both SET enthusiasts and someone that has never played SET before.  The beginning chapters of the book teach you how to play the game in a step-by-step manner.  I absolute love the writing style of this book.  When I first flipped through the book, I saw lots of math that was reminiscent of my undergraduate math textbooks.  My husband (also a math teacher) flipped through the book as well, and he was surprised to mention of topics he hadn’t thought about since uni.  However, when I started reading from the BEGINNING, I realized it doesn’t read like a textbook at all.

Example of Colored Illustrations

The book is chock full of colored illustrations, fun conversations between fictional characters (whose names conveniently begin with S, E, and T!), and the most amusing footnotes I’ve ever came across in a book!  As I was reading the book, I kept making my husband pause his youtube video he was watching to read him footnote after footnotes.  Luckily, they were funny enough to make him chuckle, so he didn’t get too aggravated at me for interrupting his videos.

Humorous footnotes like this are peppered throughout the entire book!

I could tell by how this book was written that the authors have a passion for math and teaching.

Here’s an example of this passion from the preface:

“Another important goal we have is for people to realize that mathematics is everywhere, and if you look for it, you’ll find that mathematics can help you understand the world.  Mathematics, fundamentally, is about patterns, and patterns are all around us.  Nearly everyone can do math, just as nearly everyone can read and write.  We hope that, in actively reading this book, you will confidently consider yourself a “math person,” regardless of your mathematical background.”

The book is written in two parts.  The first half of the book is intended to be accessible to ANYONE with an interest in the game.  You don’t need a math degree to understand any of the concepts.  In fact, I found myself making notes about how the authors explained some basic math concepts so I can use the same explanations with my high school students.  The second half of the book is written in a way that it should still be accessible to anyone, but those with an advanced math background will certainly get more from the reading.  This second half of the book is full of the messy math problems that caught my eye when I first flipped through the book.

Another thing I loved about reading this book is that it encourages exploration.  The authors want you to read a few pages then put down the book and play a game of SET to experience what you’ve been reading about.  The book asks questions and encourages you to ask your own questions.

Even though I’ve played SET quite a bit and attended two presentations on SET, I still found myself learning so much while reading this book.  For example, here’s a fact I was super-shocked by.  At the beginning of the game of SET, shuffle the deck.  Pull out one card at random and put it away without looking at it.  Play the rest of the game as normal.  When you have found as many sets as possible, look at the remaining cards.  You will be able to tell exactly which card you pulled out at the beginning.  How crazy is that?!?!?  I still haven’t wrapped my mind around that one yet.  I intentionally haven’t read the solution in the book because I want to figure it out myself.  When I showed this puzzle to my husband, he was able to figure out how to do it in less than a minute.  This is just crazy to me!

I also learned about the history of the game of SET by reading this book.  Did you know that SET was invented in 1974 by Marsha Falco?  Marsha was a population geneticist who was studying epilepsy in German shepherd dogs.  She made a card with symbols for each dog to represent its various genes.  Looking at these cards inspired her to make a card game that involved the same pattern recognition.  Isn’t that awesome?

It was super-fun to revisit the idea of points, lines, and planes in the game of SET which I hadn’t though about since 2014’s Math Teachers’ Circle Summer Immersion Workshop.

As you read through the book, you are encouraged to think through solutions on your own before the authors provide their own solutions.  When I was reading a section on modular arithmetic, the authors warned me to “avert [my] eyes” until I figured out the problem on my own.  If it wasn’t for this warning, I likely would have kept reading.  Because of the warning, I found a solution on my own, and I was shocked at how different my solution was from the one in the text.  I got the exact same answer, but I got there in a completely different way.  I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience if I had just kept reading.

I look forward to trying out the exercises and projects provided at the end of each chapter.  Really and truly, there is enough math in this book to keep you busy for a lifetime!

The title of this book is “The Joy of SET,” and I have to say that this book is truly a “joy” to read and work through.  I’ve learned so much already, and I look forward to learning more as I tackle the challenges this book provides.

Here are a few categories of people who I would recommend this book to:

  • Lovers of the SET Game
  • Math teachers who miss the rigors of college-level math who would like to revisit concepts they may not have though about in quite a while
  • Math teachers who would love to increase their problem solving skills and math knowledge by working through interesting math problems

I definitely recommend this book.  If you would like to preview the book before you purchase it, Amazon has quite a big chunk of The Joy of SET book available to flip through on their website!

A special thank you to Princeton University Press for sending me a free copy of this book to review! All of the opinions in this post are my own.


Sunday 15th of January 2017

Can't wait to read it myself! I haven't actually played SET before but it's now on my birthday list ?

Sarah Carter (@mathequalslove)

Friday 3rd of March 2017

You're going to love it!

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