One of my favorite instances of numeracy in literature is William Saroyan’s story, “70,000 Assyrians,” which I read in the collection, Bedside Tales. The story is typical charming early-Saroyan: it starts out with him down-and-out, waiting on line for a cheap haircut, then he converses with the barber, asking if he, like Saroyan, is Armenian. No, he replies, he’s Assyrian. Saroyan says how sad it is that the Assyrians, like the Armenians, no longer have their own country, but that they can hope for better. The barber says, sadly, that the Assyrians cannot even hope, because they have been so depleted, there are only 70,000 of them left in the world.
This is the numeracy: 70,000 is a large number, a huge number of people. It’s crowds and crowds and crowds–enough for an entire society, and then some. But not enough for a country, or not enough in a hostile part of the world where other people are busy trying to wipe you out. The idea that 70,000 is a lot, but not enough–that’s numeracy. People can be numerate with dollars–for example, $70,000 is a lot of money but it can’t buy you a nice apartment in Manhattan–but it’s my impression and others’ that people have more difficulty with other sorts of large numbers. That’s why this Saroyan story made an impression on me.