Oh, the advantages of finally getting around to starting to clean out the garage (which, in Minnesota, is strictly a summer activity).
I just knew I had a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. (Full disclosure, it’s a copy someone lent me decades ago that I never returned because it took me so long to get around to reading it. By then I’d lost touch with the co-worker who’d given it to me.)
Lately, I’ve been wanting to go at it again (and finish it this time), but I couldn’t find the copy I was sure I had. Turned out to be, along with a few other long-missing friends, in a box of books in the garage; one I’d just left out there with some other boxes (and luckily, no weather damage).
So added bonus to finally starting a chore I’ve been putting off for years!
July 11th, 2019 at 6:22 pm
A buried treasure. I’ll be curious how you think it holds up after all these years. I’ve never read it, preferring more recent material. But it’s a classic in the field.
July 11th, 2019 at 11:16 pm
I bought his I Am a Strange Loop when it came out in 2007 (“my” copy of GEB went “missing” somewhere around 2001-ish). He wrote Strange Loop as a more precise and clear (and much shorter) statement of what he was trying to say in GEB.
I think if one is interested in Hofstadter’s viewpoint, by his own admission, Strange Loop is a better choice. GEB is a more personal (wandering) statement that’s as much work of art as it is anything. (I’ve been wanting to read it on that account.)
Hofstadter is an interesting one for me in that I didn’t agree with most of his views at first, but the more I thought about them, the more I found (at least) aspects that I found agreeable. (Kant was that way for me, too. Both these guys “won me over.”)
July 12th, 2019 at 8:28 am
Just looked at the table of contents for Strange Loop. I’m remembering why I’ve always hesitated with this book. It comes across to me as meandering, imprecise, poetic, and likely to be filled with all kinds of human interest narratives.
If that’s the sharper more focused version, then Hofstadter may not be my kind of author. I’ve seen interviews where many of his ideas make sense. But getting them from him in long form may just not work for me.
He’s not the only author that fits into this category. While I agree with many of their ideas, I tend to find Steven Pinker, Antonio Damasio, and Daniel Dennett all a bit long winded. Pinker because he keeps giving example after example long after I think he’s made his point, Damasio because he just uses too many words to get to the point, and Dennett because the angle he chooses to describe things often just feels odd.
I’ve just gotten impatient in my old age, and intolerant of writing that isn’t clear and gets to the point.
July 12th, 2019 at 10:54 am
“It comes across to me as meandering, imprecise, poetic, and likely to be filled with all kinds of human interest narratives.”
You’re not wrong about that. Hofstadter is a fairly personal writer. From the beginning I’ve commented that his view about how we contain not only a model of ourselves, but also models of those we know well, seems partly driven by the loss of his wife fairly early in their marriage.
“If that’s the sharper more focused version, then Hofstadter may not be my kind of author.”
He may not be. Strange Loop is certainly more lightweight than GEB, and I do recall it being a lot easier to read.
I pulled out my copy to see if I could see what you saw in the table of contents and noticed my copy is filled with little red tape flags starting in chapter 19 (“Thinking = Consciousness”). I haven’t read it since I bought it, so it might be interesting to thumb through and see what I found worth flagging. (Could be something I especially agreed with or something I especially disagreed with.)
“I’ve just gotten impatient in my old age, and intolerant of writing that isn’t clear and gets to the point.”
I can relate.
I tend to get into non-fiction as a consequence of being already into a topic and having given it a lot of thought. What I mean to say is that the heavier reading I do comes after I’ve explored the territory a bit — formed my own thoughts and ideas. By the time I start reading heavily, I’m looking for very concise and detailed information.
I’ve learned that I learn best when there are missing pieces to a puzzle that’s begun to take shape. Then my brain is craving the missing pieces, and seems to really take to them. If I try to learn by starting with those pieces, I often have trouble seeing where they fit in the big picture.
In some ways I find myself kinda “slow” with new material. My learning curve seems to lag behind most for quite some time in the beginning as I try to figure things out. But once the picture starts to take form in my mind, the curve seriously accelerates. Then it’s leaps and bounds.
Point is, by the time I start really looking into what others have to say, I, too, am intolerant of muddled thinking!
July 12th, 2019 at 12:22 pm
Looking at Strange Loop again, it does look like it has some interesting sections. I went ahead and bought the Kindle edition. I doubt I’ll read the whole thing from beginning to end, unless those interesting sections hook me so thoroughly that I’ll be compelled to. It happened to me with Damasio’s ‘Self Comes to Mind’, although I haven’t read much of his new book.
I’m definitely impatient when it comes to non-fiction. My attitude toward it is functional. I want information. A good author can sometimes draw me in. (A lot of history authors seem to have that ability since they’re telling a story.) But when it comes to science or philosophy, it feels like something I have to climb over to get what I want.
I’m more forgiving with fiction, since in fiction, the experience is the whole point. (Although I’m a lot more willing to stop reading a fiction book that isn’t working for me than when I was younger.) Still, long winded fiction authors who feel the need to describe a character’s kitchen, or go into excessive detail about the space drive works, aren’t endearing themselves.
I think I learn similarly to the way you do. I’m usually trying to grasp the underlying concepts, and concepts take time. Many people learn some semantic facts and are satisfied. I am too sometimes. But if I really want to understand something, the early stages usually happen in a cloud of confusion. Brian Greene pointed out in one of his books that sometimes you have to earn an oversimplified version of something, then clean up afterward as you fill in the details. I think that’s often my de facto method.
July 12th, 2019 at 4:40 pm
“I went ahead and bought the Kindle edition.”
So I’ll await your book report on that while I prepare my report on GEB. (I couldn’t resist jumping it to the head of the read list and starting it last night. Enjoying it so far, but he’s just getting warmed up.)
“A lot of history authors seem to have that ability since they’re telling a story.”
I’ve mentioned that I’m not much a history buff, but when something does grab me, it’s always because of the stories. There’s a (comedy?) series, “Drunken History,” that apparently involves history experts telling history stories while drinking? It actually sounds kind of interesting.
“Still, long winded fiction authors who feel the need to describe a character’s kitchen, or go into excessive detail about the space drive works, aren’t endearing themselves.”
That’s another thing we have in common. I had a long discussion with Tina once about the amount of detail authors use. She seemed to lean more towards including it than I do. She sees a lot of it as part of the story — the canonical example being how it always rains at funerals. It’s a good point, but much of that goes over my head anyway. I’m more about plot and ideas expressed within it. I don’t want to read searching for little author clues.
I’ve learned that my enjoyment of fiction is often proportional to how many quoted paragraphs there are on a page (i.e. people talking). When I see page after page of description or internal thought,… well, it had better be damned good description or internal thought or I start skimming until people start talking again.
“I’m usually trying to grasp the underlying concepts, and concepts take time.”
I think that is the heart of it. There have been systems that were taught at a functional level — here’s what you do. I struggle with that because I need to understand what the system is doing. I’ve never done rote well.
It’s made me feel incompetent lots of times because others progress much faster at first. But the race ends up going to the turtle time after time, so I’ve learned not to let it get to me.
It’s even possible I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum. Not in the usual sense, I have a high degree of emotional sensitivity. But I’m aware I’m also a little face blind, and there are other social disconnects that make me wonder sometimes.
Or it could just be a severe case of misanthropy. 😀
July 12th, 2019 at 6:42 pm
Don’t know if I’ll read enough of Strange Loop for a full report, but we’ll see. Maybe a post inspired by its content. (I usually mention the book in those.)
One of the Expanse books actually left me struggling with the amount of character introspection it had. It’s the only one in the series that did that, and hence the only one I thought wasn’t that great.
I’m with you, I much prefer dialog and quick action and scene descriptions.
But I’ve noticed a gender divide on this issue. Women seem to prefer a lot more character introspection, and female authors tend to include more of it. Male readers and authors (generally) tend to be much lighter on it.
July 12th, 2019 at 7:34 pm
“One of the Expanse books actually left me struggling with the amount of character introspection it had.”
Aren’t those written by different authors? Or do they collaborate on each book? Was it an authorial issue, do you think?
“But I’ve noticed a gender divide on this issue.”
That doesn’t surprise me too much. The discussion Tina and I had is certainly a data point in favor.
July 12th, 2019 at 8:30 pm
The Expanse books are written by two authors, but they do collaborate on every book. In other words, they don’t alternate books or anything like that. Although I did hear once that they alternate chapters.
What they do, is make each book of a particular sub-genre. (At least that’s what they claimed in an interview.) I think this book was meant to be the literary sub-genre one, or something. If it’d been a standalone book, it wouldn’t have been one I’d be able to recommend.
July 12th, 2019 at 8:47 pm
Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Some attempts just won’t fly as well as others.
July 12th, 2019 at 7:21 am
I used to date this guy who read GEB and raved about it, so I gave the work a valiant try. Give me A for effort… but I am not nearly well-enough versed to be able to access his meaning. I don’t imagine I’d be able to access *Strange Loop* either.
Just the other day, though, I found out my old boyfriend is struggling with Parkinson’s – I’m compelled to write him, but am not sure that THAT’s a good idea. I think I’ll just share with you here and let sleeping dogs lie.
July 12th, 2019 at 10:37 am
Oh, you never know. As Mike points out, Hofstadter leans into the human interest side of things and tells rather a personal tale. There is plenty of such material in the literary world, of course, so one can pick and choose. The only reason to really get into Hofstadter would be a strong interest in theories of consciousness.
The thumbnail sketch, basically, is that Hofstadter believes consciousness arises from a kind of “feedback loop” (a “strange loop,” in his terminology) that occurs in the brain. He points to self-reference for the “strangeness” of a loop, how a phrase like, “This statement is a lie,” refers to itself and creates paradox.
I suppose, if I heard about an old woman-friend affected by something like Parkinson’s, it would depend on how deep and rich our shared past was. And how recent (or not). It may, indeed, be just as well to let the past be. (I find the present challenge enough, let alone worrying about the future. I don’t look in the rear view mirror very often.)
July 14th, 2019 at 11:47 am
I’m only into Chapter III, but I’d forgotten how delightful GEB is to read!
These early chapters are about formal systems. For instance, Chapter II explores a formal system with typographic rules that implement integer (technically, natural number) addition.
The single axiom pattern and the single production rule have a strong parallel with the very definition of the natural numbers, specifically the starting point (either 0 or 1) and the successor function.
It might be a case of nostalgia,… it all takes me back to my early days of computer science (and some of it even further back).
All I can say is that the book makes me, literally, laugh out loud with delight time and again.
September 12th, 2020 at 11:19 am
I got about 1/3 through it, got distracted by other things, and haven’t returned to it since. A lot of it, at this point for me, is kind of old hat — well-plowed ground. There are fun nuggets along the way, but a lot of it gets tedious.
I’m not counting finishing it out just yet, but I have so many other more compelling things to read, watch, write, or do, that it’s looking a little dubious.
It was nice finding “my” copy, though. Nice to have handy if wanted.