Audio Book Review: The Drunkards Walk

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
[Unabridged] [Audible Audio Edition]
Leonard Mlodinow (Author), Sean Pratt (Narrator)

Every so often, generally when I spend all my credits before the month is over, Audible will let me in on a super-secret fire sale made special just for me. I get to pick one book out of a page of ten that I can pay $4.95 for. Generally there’s the same cast of characters, give or take a book or two, and excluding books I’ve already bought at the sale. So last time I got the first Sookie Stackhouse book (and developed an unnatural obsession with that series for a bit), but I’d had my mind on “The Drunkard’s Walk” for a while. I wasn’t really sure what it was about, but I like the idea of randomness being a factor in my life. I mean, I know that randomness is a factor in my life, I just liked that someone had taken the time to write a book about it.

Initially, this book sounds very much like self-help, and at first I was worried I’d made the wrong choice. But as I listened further, the tone went from didactic to witty in the first 5 minutes, and continued in that favorable vein for the remainder.

The out of place introduction made me think of nervous publishers worrying that no one would buy a casual reader on probability unless they thought they could personally gain from the experience, so they had Leonard Mlodinow tack the self-help talk onto the front to draw in the the audience.

Not that listening to this book wont help you in your life (that outcome is very much up to you) just that if it doesn’t, you’ll still get quite a lot from it. I’m pretty terrible at math, mostly because I have a serious problem comprehending numbers. As you might expect from a book about probability, there are some fairly daunting number situations, at least for a dyscalculiac like myself. But Mlodinow uses simple terms and multiple real-life examples, illustrating complex mathematical concepts in vibrant color. If high school math had been like this, I probably would have had a much better time of it, but one course would have taken two years. He really goes into careful detail in explaining each concept.

As good as he is at explaining probability, what really makes this book into a compelling read is the artful storytelling that goes on throughout. The stories of the men and women who contributed to the development and continued use of probability throughout history are paired with anecdotes from our cultural history as well as the author’s own personal experience. Mlodinow shares himself with his reader. Whether its a humorous anecdote about the hidden cost of a crooked driveway, or the devastating lessons learned by his Holocaust survivor parents, the language is genuine and familiar.

Everything is pulled together by the narration of Sean Pratt who navigates equations, number strings and touching personal stories with almost perfect conversational cadence. I found myself wanting to hear what he had to say, wanting to follow along with the concepts because his tone was interesting and intelligent. Through Pratt, the subtle humor in the book really comes alive.

Overall, I think that “The Drunkard’s Walk” has reached the perfect balance a casual non-fiction book should aspire to. It is not so fact heavy that it becomes dry, and it is not so story focused that the subject is lost. In reaching this balance I’d say that Mlodinow surpasses other popular nonfiction writers like Mary Roach and Bill Bryson. Would I have bought this book had it not been on sale? Probably not. But for just under $5, it’s a great way to spend 9 hours and 19 minutes and come out smarter for it on the other side. I enjoyed myself, and I think that someone who understands numbers (or who can at least keep them straight in their head, unlike me) would really get a lot more out of it than I did.