Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

Tortoise: […] when I put this word—or any word—in quotes, I subtract out its meaning and connotations, and am left only with some marks on paper, or some sounds. That is called “MENTION”. Nothing about the word matters, other than its typographical aspects—any meaning it might have is ignored.
Achilles: It reminds me of using a violin as a fly swatter. Or should I say “mentioning”? Nothing about the violin matters, other than its solidity—any meaning or function it might have is being ignored.

Tortoise & Achilles, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

I read a book once. It was a book far lengthier than it had any right to be, tried to coin a new phrase every couple of pages and seemed to exist largely to show off the author’s erudition – an author who, in no uncertain terms, was an insufferable, self-centred boor. The title of the book consisted of three words, followed by a subtitle. That book was The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and it was dreadful.

One simple thing separates Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid—a similarly bloated, inveterately word-coining project covering a slew of disparate fields that works—from The Black Swan, which doesn’t: Douglas Hofstadter’s writing is a joy to read. His enthusiasm comes across from the Introduction onwards and even as he takes you down the most convoluted paths, which seem to lead nowhere and occasionally don’t, you’re grateful for the company.

My fondness for Hofstadter began as I read the 20th-anniversary introduction included in my edition of the book. He acknowledged that the initial manuscript was not without flaws, but that to amend them now would be to dishonestly represent now just where he found himself then. Despite the temptation to do so when I migrated from Oh What? Oh Jeez to this new website, I didn’t go through my old articles with a red pen for much the same reasons, and it’s nice to see my reasoning put into such succinct words.

The book itself finds time to dwell in fields from artificial intelligence to cell genetics, from Escher prints to neuroscience. Without being an expert on all of these subject I can hardly talk of Hofstadter’s accuracy, but nothing jumped out as sounding too laughably wrong. I won’t lie about understanding Gödel numbering, but Hofstadter seemed confident and it made a slight sort of sense so I was willing to go forward on trust.

That’s not to say it’s an easy or a fast read, but for the chapter Prelude… Ant Fugue alone it is more than worth the time investment.

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