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.
Eli Bendersky clocks in with:
Uh oh… here it is, THE review. Yep, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the review I’m most excited to write, because it is a review of the best book I’ve read in my life. Twice. And will read again, and again, and again. However, don’t expect much from the review, as I’m confident I won’t be able to express all my emotions and impressions from this book in writing. If you have a few hours to spare, I’ll delightfully discuss it.
Author Lev Grossman (another good comment section):
My sister was just old enough in 1979 (she was 14) to bring Gödel Escher Bach into our house and obliquely signal its importance to me and my brother by leaving it lying around and making strange coded-sounding references to it in conversation.
My brother and I subsequently read it and became infected with the GEB virus. It altered our intellectual DNA forever.
In fact I’d go so far as to suppose — how would you prove it? — that GEB reconfigured the brains of an entire generation of power nerds who are now grown up and doing interesting shit. As famous as it is I’m willing to bet its influence is still way underestimated. It’s the secret nerd bible of my generation.
Tal Cohen on the 20th Anniversary edition:
Before each of GEB‘s twenty chapters, Hofstadter includes a dialogue, in which Achilles, the Tortoise, and their company discuss various aspects that will later be examined by the author in the chapter to follow. In writing those dialogues, Hofstadter created a whole new form of art. Concepts are presented by the dialogues on two different levels, simultaneously: form and content. The more obvious level, that of content, presents each idea directly, by providing the views of the merry band — sometimes right, often wrong, and always funny. The true joy, however, lies in discovering the way in which Hofstadter interweaves the very same ideas into the physical form of the dialogue. The form deals with the same mathematical concepts discussed by the characters, and reminds the reader of the musical pieces by Bach and printed works by Escher that the characters mention directly in their talks.
From TimeBlimp, illuminating the “who is the audience” issue:
“GEB” (as the folks-in-the-know call it) might be completely unique among popular-science books — I can’t think of another book that combines such deep scientific and philosophical issues with such a flair for the literary. This isn’t just a well-written science book (like Carl Sagan’s books), it’s a book with actual artistic and literary quality to it — if you squeezed out the sections that focus on science, you’d still have enough left over to cobble together a book for a college english class. The danger with a book like this is that there’s hardly anyone qualified to be a “target audience” — the uber-tech-nerds who truly understand all of the science and math likely don’t care about the literary styling (if they noticed it at all), and the poets who can appreciate Hofstadter’s penchant for a cool turn of phrase aren’t likely to get very far into the book without feigning a stroke so they don’t have to read about number theory. And yet, it still works — the book is good enough that nearly everyone recognizes it as a tour de force, even if hardly anyone understands the whole thing. Although perusing the reviews on Amazon confirms my suspicion — the very few people who didn’t like the book are either 1) crusty hard-core experts in mathematical logic or cognitive science who had no patience for the artsy stuff, or 2) artsy people who aren’t afraid to admit they didn’t get any of the science and so the book is lost on them.
Then, just to top things off, I discovered that MIT has produced a 7-unit OpenCourseWare on Gödel, Escher, Bach.