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This question is basically from Ravi Vakil's web page, but modified for Math Overflow.

How do I write mathematics well? Learning by example is more helpful than being told what to do, so let's try to name as many examples of "great writing" as possible. Asking for "the best article you've read" isn't reasonable or helpful. Instead, ask yourself the question "what is a great article?", and implicitly, "what makes it great?"

If you think of a piece of mathematical writing you think is "great", check if it's already on the list. If it is, vote it up. If not, add it, with an explanation of why you think it's great. This question is "Community Wiki", which means that the question (and all answers) generate no reputation for the person who posted it. It also means that once you have 100 reputation, you can edit the posts (e.g. add a blurb that doesn't fit in a comment about why a piece of writing is great). Remember that each answer should be about a single piece of "great writing", and please restrict yourself to posting one answer per day.

I refuse to give criteria for greatness; that's your job. But please don't propose writing that has a major flaw unless it is outweighed by some other truly outstanding qualities. In particular, "great writing" is not the same as "proof of a great theorem". You are not allowed to recommend anything by yourself, because you're such a great writer that it just wouldn't be fair.

Not acceptable reasons:

  • This paper is really very good.
  • This book is the only book covering this material in a reasonable way.
  • This is the best article on this subject.

Acceptable reasons:

  • This paper changed my life.
  • This book inspired me to become a topologist. (Ideally in this case it should be a book in topology, not in real analysis...)
  • Anyone in my field who hasn't read this paper has led an impoverished existence.
  • I wish someone had told me about this paper when I was younger.
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A useful feature of Math Overflow on a post like this one is the ability to sort answers chronologically as well as by number of votes. Just click the "newest" tab above the answers to see the most recent additions. –  Anton Geraschenko Oct 19 '09 at 6:39
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74 Answers 74

Since you wanted to learn writing from examples: J. Kock and I. Vainsencher's book "An Invitation to Quantum Cohomology" is wonderful reading, simply because of its incredibly friendly style. It gives you the feeling that the authors take you by the hand and lead you through their garden of wonders (always uphill of course). The achievement of the book is to give you lots of intuition - for moduli stacks, strategies for proofs in enumerative geometry, the necessity of a virtual fundamental class, how generating functions work... This is something very difficult to do in mathematical writing - in this respect you could compare it to John Baez's blog, only that it is a longer, coherent book on a single subject.

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Many of Atiyah's papers, especially those with Bott, are truly inspiring -- not only "The Yang-Mills Equations on Riemann Surfaces" but also "The Moment Map and Equivariant Cohomology" and "Convexity and Commuting Hamiltonians." He has a knack for writing in a style that, while not rigorous, allows the reader to fill in all rigorous details, and at the same time communicates high excitement.

His textbook Introduction to Commutative Algebra, written with Macdonald, is like a volume of poetry. I would guess (from internal stylistic evidence) that it was mostly written by Macdonald, but it's all great.

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Without a doubt, Arnold's Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics is the book most responsible for me deciding to be a geometer. Only some papers of Atiyah were able to replicate the feeling of awe I had reading Arnold's classic as an impressionable green undergrad. Very few authors are able to convey to me the feeling of completely unconstrained thinking as Arnold's writings do. They continue to be the go to place whenever if feel stuck or stale in my research. A few pages from him still do the trick: they remind me why I became a mathematician.

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I learned to read French because of Arnold's book. When I was an undergrad the library only had the Mir edition: Les méthodes mathématiques de la mécanique classique. I'm still in love with this book. –  alvarezpaiva Apr 28 '12 at 13:00
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True story: When I was about to move to Stony Brook to start my PhD, one of my professors took me aside to tell me "You know, when I was a student Milnor was god, and Morse Theory was the bible." I found that nice and moved on, but a little later a younger professor took me aside to say "You know, when I was a student Milnor was god, and Introduction to Algebraic K-Theory was the bible." By then I knew that something was going on, but I was still taken by surprise when a more junior professor found me and said "You know, when I was a student Milnor was god, and Characteristic Classes was the bible."

Of course this was all planned. They succeeded in motivating me to take every opportunity to talk to and learn from the big names I met. But they made another point that I only recognized later, while writing my first paper: If you want to learn to write Mathematics well, read anything by Milnor.

When I was a student, Dynamics in One Complex Variable was the bible.

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John Hubbard's book on Teichmuller theory is clear, beautiful, inspiring, and (amazingly) essentially self-contained. He has a fantastic ability to take very technical and difficult results and make them seem clear and natural.

Bill Thurston wrote a preface for it which can be read here :

http://matrixeditions.com/Thurstonforeword.html

The money quote : "I only wish that I had had access to a source of this caliber much earlier in my career."

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I've always really enjoyed the papers by Graeme Segal. They are short and I often feel like they have been distilled down into the essence of what is important. I keep going back to them and extracting new nuggets of beauty.

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Can you give a concrete example that you would say is quintessential Graeme Segal? –  Anton Geraschenko Oct 12 '09 at 23:28
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I'm shocked no one mentioned T.Y. Lam. He is perhaps the clearest expositor I've ever read, he motivates and gives history in every section, he fills his books with great examples and problems, and I have yet to find any errors. Indeed, his exercises are often finding counterexamples for errors in other published works, e.g. the following in Lectures on Modules and Rings:

In a ring theory text, the following statement appeared: "If $0\rightarrow C\rightarrow Q\rightarrow P\rightarrow 0$ is exact with $C$ and $Q$ finitely generated then $P$ is finitely presented" Give a counterexample.

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The American Mathematical Society awards the Leroy P. Steele Prize, in part for recognition of mathematical exposition:

The Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement The Leroy P. Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition The Leroy P. Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research

These prizes were established in 1970 in honor of George David Birkhoff, William Fogg Osgood, and William Caspar Graustein, and are endowed under the terms of a bequest from Leroy P. Steele. From 1970 to 1976 one or more prizes were awarded each year for outstanding published mathematical research; most favorable consideration was given to papers distinguished for their exposition and covering broad areas of mathematics. In 1977 the Council of the AMS modified the terms under which the prizes are awarded. Since then, up to three prizes have been awarded each year in the following categories: (1) for the cumulative influence of the total mathematical work of the recipient, high level of research over a period of time, particular influence on the development of a field, and influence on mathematics through Ph.D. students; (2) for a book or substantial survey or expository-research paper; (3) for a paper, whether recent or not, that has proved to be of fundamental or lasting importance in its field, or a model of important research. In 1993, the Council formalized the three categories of the prize by naming each of them: (1) The Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement; (2) The Leroy P. Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition; and (3) The Leroy P. Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research. Each of these three US$5,000 prizes is awarded annually.

The winners in the area of Mathematical Exposition, including prizes for specific books are listed here:

http://www.ams.org/prizes/steele-prize.html

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Probably the book(s) that most captivated me to study numerical analysis are the two by Forman Acton: "Numerical Methods That (usually) Work" and "Real Computing Made Real". The pithy and practical advice contained in both instilled in me the habits of trying to figure out just how structured the givens of a problem may be, among other things.

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The survey paper Hilbert's Tenth Problem over rings of number-theoretic interest by Bjorn Poonen (my advisor) is one of my favorites. He has several survey papers on his web page. My first year of grad school I read many of these and decided I wanted to work with him, so in a sense this paper did `change my life'.

In general Bjorn's writing is extremely clear and I have tried to model my own writing on his.

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One of my all-time favorites for rigour and clarity:

Vistoli's Notes on Descent.

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It is incredible how Vistoli manages to make so clear a subject which is so abstract and notationally heavy. A masterpiece of mathematical writing. –  Andrea Ferretti Aug 11 '10 at 12:20
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Paolo Aluffi's Algebra: Chapter 0 presents the usual algebra material with special emphasis on category theory and homological algebra. It's written in a somewhat informal style that spurs on the reader and motivates constructions really well. I found it much better than Hungerford (which is often touted as an example of good writing itself); it is responsible for my interest in algebra and (the rudiments of) algebraic geometry.

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  1. Milne's entire set of notes (algebraic number theory, class field theory, algebraic groups, complex multiplication, modular functions and modular forms, etc.), articles (abelian varieties, Jacobian varieties, Shimura Varieties, Tannakian Categories, etc.) and books (Elliptic Curves, Arithmetic Duality Theorems, Etale Cohomology etc.), available at www.jmilne.org/math/. They are indispensable for anyone who wishes to learn the fundamental concepts in arithmetic geometry. The Storrs lectures on Abelian Varieties and Jacobian Varieties are clear, succinct and give great references throughout. His notes on 'Class Field Theory' are superbly written. 'Etale Cohomology' is a standard reference for the subject, although I find his lecture notes on the same topic even more enjoyable. Finally, 'Arithmetic Duality Theorems' is quite possibly the only reference where one can find complete proofs of Tate's Duality Theorems as well as their generalizations using etale and flat cohomology.

  2. Part 4 (particularly Chapter XX) of Lang's 'Algebra'. I may have learned (as little as I have) about homological algebra from Weibel or Gelfund-Manin as texts, but I always keep coming back to Lang's exposition. Not a lot of motivation, but it covers almost everything you need to know in a first course.

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Another paper that I really like, because it makes a lot of things that are muddled in the literature very clear, is Sawin's Quantum Groups at Roots of Unity and Modularity. In particular the lesson to learn is that if it takes you a while to sort through which papers use which conventions or to find all the relevant constants attached to Lie algebras, then you really owe it to your readers to put that information in your paper where it's easy to find (preferably in a table).

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Donaldson and Kronheimer's "Geometry of 4-manifolds" - masters of the subject, they have a knack of explaining the crux of a difficult theorem in a concise and elegant way, and gauge theory has a lot of difficult theorems. After many years of reading, it still has new surprises.

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books I enjoyed very much: Mumford "Lectures on Curves on an Algebraic Surface"; Mumford "Curves and their Jacobians"; Mumford "Basics of Torus Embeddings; Examples of the Theory": Chapter 1 in "Smooth Compactification of Locally Symmetric Varieties"; Koblitz "Introduction to Elliptic Curves and Modular Forms"; Deligne SGA 4 1/2

In general I found Bourbaki-seminar texts often very helpfull and readable. Unfortunately many of the newer issues seem not to be free available on the web.

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Geometric invariant theory is also a perfect book. I think it isthe best of Mumford. –  gauss Apr 6 '12 at 23:07
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  1. The book "Linear Algebra" by Greub; I've always thought his writing here was gorgeous, if a bit Spartan.

  2. Most of John Stillwell's books.

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How about Munkres Topology? This book certainly made me want to be a (point-set) topologist. Turns out I came along a bit late for that field, but I'm sure this book helped push me into algebraic topology. Anyway, Munkres is full of fantastic examples and pictures, it treats all the major aspects of the field, and it seems to be the most popular book for courses in point-set topology all over the US.

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Simon Donaldson - Riemann Surfaces Great writing, deep understanding. I believe that noone have mentioned it because this topic is older than the book.

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Riemann's paper, "On the number of primes less than a given magnitude," is the reason why I decided to study mathematics (at the graduate level and beyond). I read the paper as an undergraduate and I was very impressed by the techniques that Riemann used to study the properties of the prime counting function. In particular, I was blown away by Riemann's use of complex analysis, fourier analysis, and asymptotic analysis to study a problem in number theory, which I thought was a distant area of mathematics. This paper is truly a work of art and is less than 10 pages.

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Actually a book that ended up changing my life: Kaczynski, Mischaikow, Mrozek: Computational Homology

I read it while working on my master's thesis in computational homological algebra, in order to see what they had to say about efficient implementations of simplicial homology.

After reading it, I first realized that algebraic topology has applications far outside what I had seen thus far - and now, a doctorate later, I'm active in the field of Applied Algebraic Topology and Topological Data Analysis.

I'm not certain I'd peg it for great writing as such, but the criteria above did state "changed my life".

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This paper changed my life:

Vaughan Jones, "Hecke algebra representations of braid groups and link polynomials"

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From more introductory texts, some of the most well-written textbooks I came across are

  • Visual complex analysis, by Tristan Needham
  • Differential equations, by Blanchard, Devaney, and Hall
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Please split this into two answers. The point of having a big list with one answer per post is that it makes it easy to vote things up and down. If you post more than one answer per post, this advantage of being able to bubble answers up and down is lost. –  Anton Geraschenko Oct 18 '09 at 14:10
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Kontsevich's 1994 paper "Homological Algebra of Mirror Symmetry" has been very inspiring to me. It is full of tantalizing ideas and speculations, and brings so many different aspects of mathematics (and physics!) together into one beautiful tapestry.

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Category Theory by Steve Awodey (Oxford Logic Guides 49) is a very clear exposition of the subject.

And I know my students hate it, but I really like The Way of Analysis by Robert Strichartz.

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Toric Varieties, about to be published by Cox, Little and Schenck is an unmeasurable amount of joy. It is impossible to get tired of it. Everything is well-bounded and it made me learn as much Algebraic Geometry as Toric Geometry itself. Its introductory sections to Algebraic Geometry before it develops the theory and shows you how to compute examples made me learn more than any dry full theoretic book in Algebraic Geometry. Definetely the best book I have read in two years.

Available at Cox's website

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I'm surprised I haven't seen Serge Lang. Some complain that he is too terse, but I really enjoy his style. Often times when i grab several books from the library on the same subject, it will be Lang's book I end up using the most. As for a single piece of writing, I think Lang's Algebra will do.

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  1. "Differential calculus on Normed Linear Banach Spaces" by Prof.Kalyan Mukherjee

    This book gave me a very hands-on explorable window into the world of manifolds and Lie groups. Like it shows explicit calculations of derivative of matrix multiplication and determinant maps and also about computing tangents to curves inside Lie groups.

  2. "Topology, Geometry and Gauge Fields" by Gregory Naber. (2 Volumes)

    Its an exciting book which got me motivated into topology when it explained to me very simply the Heegard decomposition of S^3 and hence Hopf Fibration and how that relates to Dirac Monopoles! Before I read this book I had no clue that I would find mathematics exciting. Especially this revived my childhood interest in geometry.

    Naber's are books that changed my career decision.

  3. "Global Calculus" by S.Ramanan (in the AMS series)

    This is a hard book to read initially but it excites the reader a lot and it was great to read alongside when Prof.Ramanan taught me topology and differential geometry. Anyway Prof.S.Ramanan is a great expositor. He could teach topics like modular forms and algebraic curves to a bunch of undergrads in their first complex analysis course in Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI), India! He really pushes up the possible limits of exposition.

    Prof.S.Ramanan's lectures in my alma mater CMI, affected my career choices almost as much as Naber's books did.

  4. "Calculus on Manifolds" by Spivak

    Its treatment of Fubini's theorem and related issues are great.

  5. The writings on group theory by a college senior of mine called Vipul. His wiki "groupprops" is an amazing repository on finite group theory.

    His extensive efforts into mathematical writing also inspired me into periodically LaTex-ing up interesting things in mathematics as I learn.

Can anyone here tell about nice expository writings on topics like Gromov-Witten theory or Reshetkhin-Turaev and Rozansky-Khovanov stuff and how these relate to QFT? Something which shows a lot of examples and may be also explicit calculations.

Most sources on Quantum Groups that I have tried looking at start off a bit harshly for the newcomer. I would be greatly interested to read of "great mathematical writing" in these areas.

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Lou Kauffman's book "On Knots" inspired me to become a topologist. It conveys the feel of the way topologists think with copious hand-drawn pictures. It also gets into deep waters without losing a playful touch. It would actually be nice to have a similar book that covers the recent developments in knot theory as well.

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I think Sipser's Introduction to the Theory of Computation deserves a mention. It is incredibly clear, full of valuable examples, and an absolute classic. I can't think of a better book for a mathematician who's interested in theoretical computer science. It also seems to serve computer scientists without a great deal of mathematical background by providing an introduction to proofs at the beginning. My favorite part: all theorems come with "Proof Idea" first and then proof after that. This helps the computer scientists who are not that familiar with proofs, but it's also great for a mathematician to get the main idea of the proof, fill in the blanks themselves, and then move on to the next result.

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