Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reader's Diary #272- Douglas R. Hofstadter: Godel, Eshel, Bach (up to Part II)

Knowing that I have a pretty stubborn refusal to give up on a book once I start it, I should have thought this one through before diving in. At only 272 of 742 pages, I'm wasting a lot of my life right about now.

But as Hofstadter has so kindly pointed out, thinking things through is not one of my strong points.

Supposedly, this is one of those books which takes those difficult topics such as math and philosophy and makes them accessible to the masses. Perhaps it's a bit selfish of me to expect such things. I mean these people go through all the trouble of getting their doctorate and I want them to hand it all over to me in a thousand pages or less. Preferably a lot less. But hey, Stephen Hawking has been kind enough to comply, why not Hofstadter? (Plenty of people say that he has. I even read a reviewer at Amazon who claimed to have read this at age 13. Apparently plenty of people not only "get" this book, they also claim it's a classic.)

To start, I don't even know what I'm supposed to understand! I'm expected to commit time and effort in solving these ridiculous math problems, and I don't know why, what it's all for. Early on Hofstadter finally hooked me for a brief moment with his talks about paradoxes and strange loops. "This sentence is false." But quickly it became clear that these were only some of Hoftstadter's fixations. Is it a philosophy book about logic? A logic book about philosophy? And what's with the whole braid idea? I had hoped he'd show some connection between the arts and sciences. But, while using branches of the arts to illustrate his points, I don't see how or why he's using them (i.e., I don't get his points).

But it's not just my fault for being too dense (read "stupid"), or not taking adequate time with the book, or even choosing a book I obviously had no business reading. Some of it is Hofstadter's fault as well. First of all, if one is going to explain a concept or ask you to work out a particular formula full of symbols, the traditional approach is to define necessary terms ahead of time. Not so with Hofstadter. Instead he writes page upon page about the wonders of Bach's fugues, then he wraps up the discussion by defining what a fugue is. That bit of information would have been handy to have at the beginning. Likewise, he asks you to derive strings from theorems and axioms (or some such challenge- I've lost the ability to even care what the heck I'm talking about) and doesn't tell you what half the symbols are until afterwards. I hope I'm excused for not going back to redo my work.

I'd also like to ban him for ever going near an exclamation point again. If I hadn't also lost my trust in counting, I'd go back and tell you how many he averages per page. Suffice to say, it's too many. It's hard to share in that level of unbridled enthusiasm without having an idea what he's talking about. Imagine a kid at preschool showing off a parabola he just drew on his graphics calculator. I'm the kid staring blankly back with a Lego jammed up my nose.


Allison said...

I love the first paragraph to this post :) I think I've given up on Blindness, but I'd really like to finish it.

John Mutford said...

Allison: Maybe this book is karma for pushing Blindness on people who haven't enjoyed it as much.

Carrie K said...

Maybe Hofstadter intended it to be read over and over again? Once for the overview, again to actually grasp what he's saying (especially if he's saying it backwards) and the third time to count the exclamation points?

I'll probably pick the darn thing up now too. I love stuff that's way over my head. Thankfully there are no legos in my house. ;)

John Mutford said...

Carrie: Intended it or not, I've heard a lot of people say they reread it on an almost regular basis. I'll pass.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

hahaha the book may be horrendous, but I love the post that came from it!

The book sounds like a horrid mess and for what it is worth, you have my permission to give up on it.

Dewey said...

Uh oh. I just chose this book for a challenge. I wonder if it's ok to back out and pick something else?