Thirty-six years ago, one of the greatest books of its decade was published — Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach.
It’s hard to describe how this book affected a certain kind of person. You had to have an interest in logic, recursion, and self-reference in the fields of mathematics, music, and the visual arts, for starters. But if it caught you at the right stage in your life, when these interests were important to you and you had some familiarity with at least Escher and J. S. Bach, then there was nothing like this book. Anywhere.
And that’s still true. Even Hofstadter’s other books, fascinating and improbable as they all are, don’t come close.
It’s a tour de force — both witty and compelling.
There’s little original I can write on the topic, but here are some highlights…
Here’s the reasonable (if not entirely sympathetic) review from the New York Times in 1979 by Brian Hayes. (Some readers just don’t seem to appreciate the linguistic humor, the playfulness with which Hofstadter approaches his subjects.)
In looking for good reviews, I was especially interested in recent ones, to see how the book is still received. I was quite happy to find this gem: A discarded review of ‘Godel, Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid’. Not only do I advise you to read it (the comments section illuminates the variation in fans vs non-fans), but inside I found a surprise — a reference to a paean by Eliezer Yudkowsy, whose deliciously intelligent fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a treat in its own right:
This is simply the best and most beautiful book ever written by the human species…
I’m not alone in this opinion, by the way. For one thing, Gödel, Escher, Bach won a Pulitzer Prize. Or just pick a random scientist and ask ver what vis favorite book is, and 1 out of 5 will say: “Gödel, Escher, Bach“. No other book even comes close.
It is saddening to contemplate that every day, 150,000 humans die without reading what is indisputably one of the greatest achievements of our species. Don’t let it happen to you.
Sure, if you’re just an average person, you might not understand everything in this book – but when you’re done reading, you won’t be an average person any more.