"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘Tortoise and Achilles’

Day 1: The best book you read last year

It’s typical of me that I’d start of this project with a book that’s famously difficult to describe.  Almost everyone has heard of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, but unless you’ve read it you probably don’t know what it’s about.

Godel, Escher, Bach is mainly non-fiction, hitting topics from math, computer science, and physics, to art, music, linguistics, philosophy, and many more.  In between the main chapters on these topics are a series of humorous skits and dialogues, most featuring the characters of Achilles and the Tortoise.  (Hofstadter borrowed this idea from a passage by Lewis Carroll, which also appears in the book.)

What is the actual main topic?  I would say that there are two.  The first is a mathematical concept known as Godel’s Impossibility Theorem.  The second is the question of the human brain and consciousness and what separates it from artificial intelligences.  However, if I emphasized these technical aspects of the book, I might scare you off, so let me quickly add that the book is not truly “about” those things, nor is it really about anything.  Rather, it is constantly bouncing and weaving among many different things, in a manner that I’ve never seen equaled in any other book.  This is the real key to Hofstadter’s fame and genius, that he can write about complicated mathematical topics and seamlessly integrate references to the Music of Bach and the Art of Escher and others along with comics, puns, his own graduate thesis in physics, computer readouts, and a great deal more.

If you have not read Godel, Escher, Bach, it should be in your to-read pile.  Let me say one word of warning, however.  This is not a book to be read in an hour, nor in a day, a week, a month,  and possibly not even in a year.  It is a book that must be savored slowly and carefully and revisited again and again throughout a lifetime, with the effect growing each time you return.


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