Goedel Escher and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Posted on April 23, 2010

One of the central questions about Douglas Hofstadter is “what on earth is this book about?”. One second you’ll be exploring the concept of a phonograph that destroys itself. In another chapter you will be learning about recursion by traveling through MC Escher’s paintings. In yet another you’ll get one of most comprehensive descriptions of DNA replication I have ever read. It is only until the last chapter where he states that the 750 page tome is an exploration of “indirect self reference” that his intentions become truly clear. To take this a step further, “Goedel Escher and Bach” (GEB) is about how we get meaning from unthinking mechanisms and self reference, an idea that is often called emergence.

This book is like nothing I’ve ever read. Organized like Bach’s “Prelude and Fugues”, Hofstadter starts each chapter with a dialogue, usually transpiring between Achilles and a Turtle. Then he follows this up with an in depth explanation of the concepts he introduced, to a painstaking degree. Over the course of the book you will do several things. You’ll build a system of notation that will allow you to visualize number theory. You’ll discover untold isomporphisms (don’t worry, you’ll learn this word) between your DNA, music and number theory. You’ll also travel back in time and meet all sorts of interesting characters, like Charles Babbage (Ba,Ch.).

I was pleasantly surprised with the subtlety in the writing. You don’t anticipate that a computer science professor would be able to entertain for as long as he does, but his writing is dry and witty, and puns are a crucial theme in the book. Yes, the dialogues often seem forced, but you don’t read this book for witty banter. Watch House instead if that’s your thing.

If I have one criticism about this book it is that it is a bit outdated on the Artificial Intelligence front. For example, Hofstadter incorrectly predicts that a chess program would be created that can beat anybody and he mentions over and over that LISP is the best programming language. This makes the final chapters a bit tedious, but that’s about it.

If you are interested in philosophy, math, numbers, linguistics, music (Bach especially), art, creativity, your own brain or even just thinking in general, then I would recommend this book. Do not pick it up idly though. To get through it took me nearly 3 months. If you are attempting it I have a little advice. First is to take it step by step. In the early days I could go through a chapter a night. But in the second part of the book I really had to break it up. Read until your brain gets tired and then pick it up the next night. My second piece of advice is to understand everything you read before you continue. Careful reading is crucial. If you skip over something, you will regret it later. Take this book sentence by sentence. Digest everything and you’ll come out on top.

I feel like I earned some sort of nerd merit badge by finishing this. I can say that I don’t think about intelligence, language, music or really anything the same way as when I started. This review really has not done it justice, its depth is far grander than my stupid summary. If you’re in the mood for a book that will challenge, entertain and enlighten, then this is the book for you.

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