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The Gold Bug Variations

4.13  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,276 Ratings  ·  121 Reviews
A national bestseller, voted by Time as the #1 novel of 1991, selected as one of the "Best Books of 1991" by Publishers Weekly, and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award--a magnificent story that probes the meaning of love, science, music, and art, by the brilliant author of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.
Paperback, 640 pages
Published 1991 by Harper Perennial
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. RowlingMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur GoldenA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Best Books of the Decade: 1990's
302nd out of 1,903 books — 2,253 voters
Orfeo by Richard PowersGalatea 2.2 by Richard PowersPlowing the Dark by Richard PowersGenerosity by Richard PowersThe Echo Maker by Richard Powers
Best of Richard Powers
5th out of 13 books — 5 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Nov 01, 2007 Ben rated it did not like it
Dear Richard Powers,

I'm sorry I gave up on your book about a third of the way into it. I don't normally do that. Even if I'm trapped in an airport newsstand without a book, and end up buying "The Hunt for Red October", or some Neil Gaiman jerk-off dorkfest, I'll usually see it through to the end out of what I can only guess to be some misplaced romantic loyalty to the printed word, or possibly a mild to medium case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. "The Gold Bug Variations" however, proved pain
Dec 23, 2012 Jonfaith rated it it was amazing
The Gold Bug Variations wrecked the world of one jon faith a long time ago. My ecstatic reply generated ripples of both interest and disquiet . I loved the three characters, loved the Midwestern backdrop, the nerdy affinity that adults could maintain with straight faces. No, there wasn't much beer drinking, but the rich foam of ideas was a fair compensation. What followed was pure reverence. Then I had a girlfriend who found the novel to be shit. It should be noted that she was an actual scienti ...more
Jul 26, 2009 Greg rated it it was amazing
It's been about five years since I read this book. It was so good, so smart and so well constructed that I haven't read another Richard Powers book since. I feel like his books need to be saved for just the right time, I don't know when that time is, but I'd always like to have another of his books to read for the first time waiting for me, sort of like Raymond Chandler or the last DFW stories I haven't read yet.

Feb 04, 2016 AnnLoretta rated it it was amazing
Four, five, four, oh five. I can't hold it against the man just because he makes me work for it.

Best book in the world, no. Great? Yeah. I worked so hard, I learned so much. I'm glad I read Orfeo first, because that taught me so much of the basics I needed to read The Gold Bug Variations, and Galatea 2.2, simply because it gave me faith in Mr. Powers. He writes characters I wish I knew, and I don't like anybody. And he does it in a few strokes, and, can I say this? It's an assumption. I think h
Dec 01, 2014 Steve rated it it was amazing
A mid-50's scientist was on the verge of real discovery in the realms of DNA research, and nothing happened. Decades later a librarian wants to know why. Where'd he go? What happened?

If you liked Gravity's Rainbow you might want to give The Gold Bug Variations a look. It has perhaps not quite a Pynchonian level of technical discussion and detail, but a lot nonetheless; Power's voice is hard work, but after awhile I found it growing on me. Rich characterization, imagery, and arcane references abo
Jun 16, 2007 Anna rated it it was amazing
More people who love fiction need to discover Richard Powers. His work isn't the most poetic or character-driven, but they offer so much else. Gold Bug and Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance are among my favorite books (but avoid Operation Wandering Soul).

A story of two temporally separated yet linked couples (why do I love that gimmick so?), this novel is essentially about variations on themes, codes: in music, painting, computers, and the discovery of DNA. Cerebral and curious and charming.
Dec 27, 2015 TheLongWait rated it really liked it
Shelves: pomo, my-library
Awash with science and music, love and longing, the GBV is a breathtaking work of fiction. I was immensely surprised to see how few people have read this fascinating book.

Mr. Powers is clearly incredibly smart, and his prose is very clever if sometimes dry. He did bore me a bit with too much detail on Bach's Goldberg Variations, but overall I enjoyed this book. Recommended for those who enjoy a bit of a love story with your postmodernism .
J. Dunn
It’s about the underlying similarities between, and conflicts inherent in, music and the genetic code and programming and language and beauty and meaning and relationships and patterns; the twin quests of discovery that are science and love… and it just blows me away. I don’t know how he can write so beautifully about such dense subject matter, and relate it so well back to the basic things that make us all human, but he can.
Aaron Arnold
Jun 08, 2014 Aaron Arnold rated it it was amazing
Two moving and mobile plotlines, a clever high-level structure, and more affectionate science nerdery than you could reasonably hope for. The novel's title works in Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug and Johann Sebastian Bach's The Goldberg Variations, in a clever nod to the main thematic material, but in addition to those motifs of codebreaking and music, Powers also works strains of genetics, knowledge, and information into the mix, in addition to more human subjects like love, fidelity, and respo ...more
May 25, 2007 Nate marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
If you don't get the title's allusive pun (to Robbins's Goldberg Variations), you won't get far into this long, densely textured, multi-referential, and brilliant novel. It demands that a reader make connections between such diversities as the genetic code and musical notation, Flemish art and biological nomenclature, the logic of computer systems and the Dewey decimal classification, cartography and chemistry. Making such connections--deciphering the encrypted messages of our world--is the grea ...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
The title is a warning to the casual reader: If you don't get the title, or if you don't want to get the title,

In The Gold Bug Variations, author Richard Powers perspicaciously composes a novel with themes of puzzles (Edgar Allen Poe's The Gold Bug), music structure (Bach's Goldberg Variations), romance (two love stories that intertwine across twenty-five years), computer technology, art history, and DNA genetic codes. I remember reading this book when it was first published, maybe twent
Aug 05, 2007 Jen rated it it was amazing
Oh, how I loved this book when I first read it. I remember savoring every page and wanting to start over again as soon as I finished. It's on my "desert island" (most favorite/influential) list because it meant so much to me at a time in my life when everything was changing. I was a young adult who for the first time had figured out (some) of what I wanted to do with myself, and I was stretching myself in every way I could. It was a time of great growth, an exciting time, and this book will alwa ...more

As a preface to Richard Powers' The Gold Bug Variations, this codon-like string of letters not only mirrors the genetic sequencing found throughout the narrative; it also troubles the unsuspecting reader who engages Powers's novel for the first time. Is there a hidden, encoded message? If so, can it be deciphered using the coding techniques found throughout Gold Bug? Or
Eric Kibler
Jun 01, 2010 Eric Kibler rated it liked it
The idea behind this book, that a love story could be woven around dissertations on genetic mapping and music, turns out to be less appealing than you'd think. (That is, you might think it appealing if you had a more-than-average intellectual bent). But the result is neither fish nor fowl.

I can see why those who praise it like it. It's ambitious as hell, and sometimes the metaphors and wordplay are very apt and clever. But the book assumes that you either are a novice when it comes to the more
Feb 14, 2008 Manderson rated it it was ok
I actually didn't finish this book. I got 1/3 of the way through it, when I suddenly realized that I didn't like any of the characters. This is a book about socially awkward and introverted people for whom mundane occurrences are wrought with brooding revelation and significance. It is well written, with prose that at times can be as disjointed and cryptic--yet feelingly flowing--as its subject matter. But this is a problem I have had with some other of the author's books (which I finished)--it' ...more
Sep 08, 2009 Jae rated it really liked it
Despite that it took me nearly a month to read, I did enjoy this book a lot. It was a great combination of the studies science (genetics specifically), music, and human nature (obsession specifically). The way Powers relates the construction of Bach's Goldberg Variations to the construction of the genetic material making up each one of us is inspired. The relationships of the characters and the introspect of why each is the way they are is incredibly engaging. Power's brings together another gro ...more
Vit Babenco
Oct 07, 2015 Vit Babenco rated it it was ok
“Ads are our supreme art, polar exploration, and depth psychology rolled into one.”
And it seems Richard Powers is this sort of litterateur – his language is stilted and necrotic and his narration is a hotchpotch of the far-fetched words.
“…the world was awash in messages, every living thing a unique signal.”
There are no personages but soulless blueprints of those…
There is no history but a file of dead historical data…
There is no thinking but a suite of irrelevant quotes…
“Pitch-writing obeys amorp
Aug 06, 2008 Bridgit rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Bridgit by: my cousin
What a book! The story of 4 people, 2 different generations, and how their lives intertwine and interplay. Gold Bug as in a short story by Poe I have yet to read, and Goldberg Variation as in J.S. Bach. One character a contemporary of Glenn Gould, previously musically inept, but introduced to the Variations by a fellow scientist (of the opposite sex) who find similarities in the music and the genetic code they seek to de-cypher. The chapters jump between characters and decades and duplicate each ...more
Greg Dhuyvettrr
May 16, 2015 Greg Dhuyvettrr rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
I have been struggling with what I want to say about this book and how I would rate it from very early on. It is certainly a proverbial tour de force, with all the good and bad that this entails. It is incredibly, perhaps at times needlessly, long, “A prolific writer, the man is to trees what Bill Cody was to buffalo.” There are pages and pages and pages of complex discussions of genetics and music theory that are clearly metaphorical, if one can fully decipher them. In many cases, I could not, ...more
Mar 14, 2008 The_markus rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in genetics, library science, art history, bach's goldberg variations
Recommended to The_markus by: tangentially, jody roberts
this book really struck some cords with me, mostly due to the overlap between several technical/scientific subject areas that are used throughout the book as metaphors and also as mind-opening lessons in how the lived world has been changing as we have access to more information than ever.

these subject areas are (a) the growth of genetics after the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, (b) the early history of on-line information sharing in large financial institutions using mainframe computers and fo
Tim Dudek
Oct 26, 2011 Tim Dudek rated it did not like it
I had not heard of Richard Power before I picked up a copy of The Goldbug Variations, so I didn't have much of a preconceived idea of what to expect. First thing I did was open up the book randomly to a few pages and read some sentences to get the authors general style. First I noticed the density of the style. I'm ok with that. I tend to like dense and even write that way some times. But then I noticed that as far as I could tell the sentences didn't really mean anything. Well they would probab ...more
Jul 21, 2009 Liza rated it liked it
Shelves: nyc
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 05, 2008 Brayden rated it it was ok
I didn't like this book. I'm surprised I didn't like it more because I loved the only other book I've read by Powers, The Echo Maker. Both deal with similar kinds of people. Powers is adept at getting inside the mind of the academic, which is probably because they, professors and other intellectual types, are the people Powers hangs out with. But this book lacked something that the Echo Maker didn't: mystery.

Yes, there is a literal mystery in the novel. Why did Stuart Ressler, one of the greates
Jon Doyle
Mar 19, 2015 Jon Doyle rated it really liked it
Yes it's probably too long and yes the portrayal of research isn't all that accurate (at least in parts) but there is something admirable about the way Powers writes, taking as much time and as many words as he feels he needs to explore the relative importance of science and art and human progress.
Martyn Lovell
Jan 27, 2015 Martyn Lovell rated it did not like it
Richard Powers novel intertwines two narratives - one from the 1950s, one from the 1980s, that are joined by their themes of love, science, technology and music, and united around the one character that transcends the narratives. Mixed in with the love stories and plot are large passages of exposition about science, technology and music.

Among the 650 pages, there are a few parts of this story that remain engaging and interesting. When Powers sticks to his characters and plot, he is sometimes ab
Jan 16, 2015 PR rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this shortly on the heels of The Echo Maker. I was let down by TEM, and by this novel mostly because, I think, I expected something different, which is partly, probably, on me. I expected "difficult" a la Pynchon or Wallace, and instead felt myself in the midst of a sciency romance-thriller. It is evident that Powers does loads of research, because it is right there on the page, and his chief characters are, themselves, either scientists or people attempting to grasp scientific concepts. ...more
Oct 17, 2007 Michelle rated it it was amazing
This book is brilliant. Richard Powers is a genius, and everyone should read him.

I remember wishing as I read this book, back in the Dark Ages, that I'd learned more about genetics and music. I'm sure my lack of knowledge on those subjects means that I missed a lot of the nuance, but still: genetics and music! I love how he brings disparate subjects together like that, with seeming ease.
Julie Larson
Sep 05, 2007 Julie Larson rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: nobody
Shelves: bookshelf
Overworked and overdone. Each sentence reads as though you were reading across two pages that were stuck together. There's no flow, no sense of context or storytelling at all, only a sense that the writer is trying to show off his ability to use a thesaurus. I can't get into this book. I don't think I'll be finishing it.
Matt Tenenbaum
Aug 16, 2015 Matt Tenenbaum rated it it was amazing
These five stars are not enough.
Feb 02, 2008 Holbrook rated it really liked it
Not sure how a book set in the 80s where ATMs are new and cool could seem so fresh, and I'm sure Powers isn't the first to draw parallels between musical chord theory and DNA sequencing but I love this book! Over the top intellectual but still able to pull at the emotions, much the way A.S.Byatt often does.
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Richard Powers is the author of eleven novels. He has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and the National Book Award.

Librarian note: There is more than one author with this name in the Goodreads database.
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“The loss of a great library to fire is a tragedy. But the surreptitious introduction of thousands of untraceable errors into reliable books, errors picked up and distributed endlessly by tireless researchers, is a nightmare beyond measure.” 2 likes
“Je ne fais aucun mal en restant ici.

I do no harm by remaining here.”
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