a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

A Good Problem to Have (2014)
B.J. Novak
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

A fourth grade math class is interrupted by an old man who bursts in claiming that he was the inventor of the train problem:

(quoted from A Good Problem to Have)

"That's my problem," said the man.

He stared at us all at once, somehow, with a look that said that we knew what he was talking about, but we didn't.

"A man leaves Chicago at twelve p.m. on a train heading for Cleveland at sixty miles per hour," he said quickly. "Another man leaves Cleveland at one p.m. heading for Chicago on a train going eight-five miles per hour. At what time will the two trains cross paths?"

One kid, Arush, raised his hand. "Approximately --"

"I know the goddamn answer!"


"That's my problem," said the old man, sitting back down in the chair. "I wrote it. That was the one thing I did. The one thing. When you're young you think everything you do is just the beginning. But when you're old, no matter who you are, you realize you only did one or two things."

The old man is upset that he has not properly been paid for this question which (in its various guises) has influenced so many students and teachers. However, he also comes to realize that this is a "good problem to have", in that it means that his "one thing" actually mattered to the world.

This story was reprinted in the author's collection "One More Thing". (Click on Amazon link for more information).

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to A Good Problem to Have
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Rithmatic by B.J. Novak
  2. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
  3. Trains Passing by Martin Ziegler
  4. The Argentine Ant by T.C. Boyle
  5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman
  6. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich
  7. What the Revolution Requires by Timons Esaias
  8. A House for Living by Nicolette Polek
  9. Matrices by Steven Nightingale
  10. Naked Came the Post-modernist by Sarah Lawrence College Writing Class WRIT-3303-R / Melvin Jules Bukiet
Ratings for A Good Problem to Have:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)

MotifMath Education,
MediumShort Stories,

Home All New Browse Search About

Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)