Lighthearted non-light reading

I just finished reading Hofstadter’s book Godel, Escher, Bach. I had started it about a year ago, got halfway through, had to return it to the library, and didn’t pick it back up until January. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another piece of writing (or anything, really) that is simultaneously so delightful and so exhausting.

The format may be the greatest thing about the book; Hofstadter plays with form and language like no other writer of a 700-page-plus tome ever did. The bulk of the work is interspersed with invented dialogues, many of which are composed so that they match a particular musical form. The Crab Canon would read about the same, line by line, backwards as it does forwards. Fugues have multiple characters jumping in in a staggered way, each speaking the same starting line before breaking off into their own ‘harmony.’ It’s great to follow, and I may have learned a little more about musical forms, too.

Hofstadter is interested in the question of how consciousness arises from the very much non-conscious matter that makes up the human body. The book is an (extremely) in-depth exploration of the issue, ranging from the title subjects of math, art, and music to molecular biology, self-reference in language, and artificial intelligence. It’s pretty interesting, incidentally, to read his predictions about AI, which he wrote in the late 70s. He was pretty confident about the ultimate prospects for AI, though he was careful not to speculate about timeframes. Still, even such a small victory as the mid-90s Kasparov-Deep Blue match was a long way away when GEB was published.

I’d like to own the book. I’d like to think I’ll read it again, but I don’t know. It is not a book to pick up lightly, although you will laugh along the way (if you’re inclined to puzzles, especially). It is impressive that one person discussed so many topics at such depth.


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