Chris Herdt's Reviews > Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter
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Jan 25, 2010

it was amazing
Recommended to Chris by: Nim Wunnan, John Johnstone
Read from January 28 to March 09, 2010

This book is not perfect, but it is nevertheless incredible.

What is Goedel, Escher, Bach about? You might think, from the title, that it is about mathematics, art, and music. And it is, but it also isn't. It is also about number theory, entomology, zen, and genetics--but again, it also isn't. The scope is tremendous. If the topic can be summed up briefly, I would say it is about self-reference and the relationship of self-reference to artificial intelligence and general intelligence. It is about the nature of consciousness itself.

I am frankly shocked that GEB won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 1980, because at 777 pages it is a hefty tome that indeed does involve logic puzzles, non-Euclidean geometry, and number theory: things that I would guess frighten the reading public (including award committees). Perhaps I underestimate the reader? Or perhaps I underestimate the vision and courage of 1980.

The chapters alternate with explicitly Lewis Carrol-inspired dialogues, primarily between Achilles, Tortoise, and Crab. The dialogues precede the chapters, giving the reader a lighthearted glimpse at the heavier topics to follow, but which abound with complexity upon re-examination. Many concepts were foreign to me (I am not well-versed in musicology, so while a canon was familiar to me, what makes a fugue a fugue was previously outside my knowledge), but as my friend Nim advised me, just keep reading and it will start making sense. And, most of the time, it does!

GEB resurrected my belief in metaphor and analogy (often used painfully and clumsily by amateurs) as useful tools to make complex ideas easier to understand. I hope that the superb phonograph and tape player analogies hold up even for the CD and MP3 generation.

Even the bibliography, superbly annotated, is eminently readable!

This book is not light reading, but is well worth the effort.
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message 2: by Damien (new)

Damien Leri Chris,

Here is another writer that was a speaker on Penn campus recently. (I don't miss an opportunity to remind you to return to Philly.)

His current topics, I find, are even more difficult than that early material. I liked the Ton Beau de Marot. But I can't make it through "I am a Strange Loop". And his talk here combined math with the idea of a soul or persistent traces of a human. Something like that... interesting, but difficult.


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