Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, also known as GEB, by Douglas R. Hofstadter was the most challenging nonfiction book that I have ever read. Not including notes, my version of the book contained 737 very dense pages. The book was not only difficult, but its structure and content, though based on real science and technology, was very unusual. This work has something of a cult status with people who are interested in human consciousness, mathematics, computers, general science and popular philosophy. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for General Literature in 1979. 

Even describing what the book is about is challenging. Hofstadter looks at multiple natural and human-made processes involving loops, self-reference and copying and then relates these concepts to the human brain, thinking, our sense of self and consciousness.  He ultimately contends that loops and self-reference are the keys to human consciousness. Along the way, he examines loops, copying and self-reference in terms of mathematics, art, music, physics, DNA, computers and more. He delves into each of these subjects in great, and sometimes bewildering, detail. The mathematical sections are the most intricate. There are many pages that are heavy with formulas and number theory. The author actually gives the reader problems and puzzles to work on to help him or her to better understand it all. There are also very complex sections on the other subjects mentioned. 

Hofstadter is particularly interested in Kurt Friedrich Gödel’s Mathematical theorems, the artwork of M.C.Escher and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as they relate to the topics explored in this book. It turns out the works and discoveries of all three are heavy with loops and self-reference. There are also a lot of words devoted to other mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and classical composers. 

Each section of the book is prefaced within an allegorical story involving the characters Achilles and the tortoise.  Hofstadter explains in the text that these characters were first used by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea and later by Lewis Carroll in "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles". These segments become longer and more intricate as the book progresses. These stories seek to explain the concepts of each section in parable form. I found these sequences to be charming and whimsical, but they also became complicated at times. 
The book is not all technical. In addition to the above-mentioned parables, there is a lot of philosophizing. The author tends to throw out curious ideas and concepts and not actually take stands on them. He is also a good writer who is usually very lively despite the technical nature of much of it.  Here, he ponders what it is to be human and our sense of self. 

"What is an "I", and why are such things found (at least so far) only in association with, as poet Russell Edson once wonderfully phrased it, "teetering bulbs of dread and dream" -- that is, only in association with certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts?"

Hofstadter is also an exuberant writer. His love of math, science, Classical Music, art and more exudes through the pages of this work. 

When I say that I have read a book, I usually mean that I read every page and every word. However, with this work, I skipped sections. In particular, I passed over much of the math. I tried to read the early and late paragraphs of these sections in order to get the point that the author was trying to make. I read most, but not all of, sections on physics, biology and music theory. I know a little bit about all these subjects as I have taken classes and/or read about all of them. With that, all of these sections were challenging, and there was a lot that I did not understand. I think that had I given it a more comprehensive read, I would have spent the better part of a year on this book. I would have done all of the author’s problems and perhaps gone beyond the book itself to understand all the music theory, technical issues and science. I still would not have understood it all. What is puzzling is that this work is not presented as something for only mathematicians or scientists or experts in music theory to read. Even if it was, I suspect that experts in one of these disciplines might get in over their heads in the areas in which they are not specialists. The depths that Hofstadter plumbs in regards to these subjects are astounding. On one hand, such detail seems unnecessary. On the other hand, the very deep dives into these subjects make the book strangely attractive. This level of complexity seems to be what drives some of the cult status of this book. I should mention that Hofstadter is no crackpot and my understanding is that experts in the respective fields generally respect the information in this work.

My take on Hofstadter’s ideas is that I think that he examines some real phenomenon involving loops and self-reference that cut across both nature and human endeavors. Some of this does relate to the human mind. I am not sure if I agree that these things are central to consciousness and the human sense of self or not. Reading what people have written about this book online, it seems that many take in the grand tour of all of the covered subjects with joy while almost ignoring the author’s take on consciousness. 

Hofstadter has written a follow up to this book called I Am a Strange Loop. Perhaps it goes with the odd character of this book in that I read it in an odd way.  After reading about one quarter of this work, I put it down and read I Am a Strange Loop as the latter book presented Hofstadter’s ideas in an easier to digest way. I then returned to this work and finished it. I will be posting commentary in that later book soon. I actually found this odd reading sequence to be beneficial. The concepts in I am a Strange Loop were much easier to grasp, and reading that work helped me a lot here. 

No matter what, this is a really unique book. In some ways it is a crazy, unpredictable trip through a hodgepodge of ideas. It seems to have influenced many of today’s thinkers. I would only recommend it to those who do not mind a challenging read full of technical material, some of which they may need to skip or skim over. I would recommend it for anyone who is curious about the list of subjects referenced. People who are very interested in mathematics might enjoy this a lot, but only if they have an interest in the other subjects. Though written at a later time, it might be a good idea to read I Am a Strange Loop. In the end, a difficult and strange, but in some ways, rewarding read. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Goodreads and Bookish Memories

There are a lot of very good things about Goodreads. In this entry I want to talk a little about entering books read in the past on one’s bookshelves. This feature allows a Goodreads user to catalogue a lifetime of reading on the site. Over the past year or so, I have been slowly, and at times not so slowly, adding books to my shelves that I have read over the years. 

Engaging in this cataloging has gotten me thinking about books that I read in the past. I find myself remembering books that I read decades ago that I probably would never have given another thought about. When I first started doing this, I would easily recall books that I read in years gone by and then enter them into the site.  I added scores of books. After I entered the easy books to recall, things became a little more challenging. I now search my memories to remember books.  Sometimes I will remember a plot but not remember the title or author. I then began to Google search. Sometimes it takes me awhile but I will usually find the name of the book. A good example of this was Norman Spinrad’s Songs from the Stars. I remembered that I read it when I was 17 years old just before I started college. I also remembered that it was very lighthearted and involved a kind of hippie-utopia that existed in California long after the fall of civilization. I just could not remember the author or the title. It took me awhile, but I found it through internet searching and promptly added it to my Goodreads list. Sometimes when searching for a seemingly forgotten title, especially when poring over a particular author’s bibliography, I am reminded of other books that I read long ago. One case where this occurred is when I searched through Robert Silverberg’s bibliography in an attempt to find a particular book. I realized that I had read some other books of his. I now find myself waking up in the middle of the night and remembering a novel that I read long ago. 

Goodreads also has an ongoing discussion thread called What's the Name of that Book? On this thread one can post a description of the book that one is looking for and others can chime in with ideas on what the title of the half-forgotten book is. Thus far, I only used the thread once but have not found the name of the book. However, looking at other people’s posts, it seems that the thread has worked for many in their quests to find book titles. 

Several people that I know online have maintained reading journals going back years or even decades. In these journals, they record all of the books that they finished in past as well as when they finished them. I wish that I had the foresight to do this. Finish dates of books read would have been very valuable. 

This brings me to the date-read feature on Goodreads. Using this option, one can enter the date he or she finished a book. Thus, if one remembers the date that one completed a book, one can enter it when they enter the book, even if the book was read years ago or decades ago.  However, for me, determining the date that I completed most books is impossible, but there are a few titles for which I can come very close to determining when I finished reading them. There were a few books that I read almost immediately upon publication. This is true about some science fiction that came out in the 1980s. I mentioned Songs from The Stars above. I remember finishing the book shortly before I started my freshman year of college. Thus, I know that I completed that novel in July or August of 1985. It is neat that I can date a book like that. My Goodreads profile and bookshelves can be found here.

Goodreads seems to have a lot of other appealing features. There appears to be many forums where all sorts of interesting bookish conversations take place. Alas, I am unable to explore these forums due to a lack of time. 

There are many social media platforms that people are using to enhance their love of books. Though I do not have statistics, I suspect that Goodreads is the most popular of these. I will continue to use Goodreads to catalogue the books that I have read. Without a doubt, I will also continue to remember books that I read a long time ago that would have otherwise have been lost in the mists of time. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy was first published in 1878. The story takes place in the fictional Egdon Heath, a picturesque area of moorland in rural England. The tale centers around several characters and their romantic entanglements. The book also puts great focus upon Egdon Heath itself. Some have called this geographical area an additional character in the novel. 

The native of the title is Clym Yeobright. Clym, always known to be bright and different, has gone off to Paris, where he is pursuing a commercial career. When he returns home, presumably for a holiday, there is a lot going on in Egdon. Damon Wildeve is bouncing between two women:  Thomasin Yeobright, who is Clym’s cousin, and the mysterious and exotic beauty Eustacia Vye. After several near marriages, elopements and rejections, Wildeve eventually marries Thomasin. Clym and Eustacia are also attracted to one another and eventually wed.  Mrs. Yeobright is both Clym’s mother and Thomasin’s aunt. She opposes both of their marriages. Another character, Diggory Venn, known as “The Reddleman,” is both odd and virtuous.  He also wants to marry Thomasin and spends a lot of time wandering the heath at night trying to prevent the unscrupulous Eustacia and Wildeve from hurting and betraying others. 

To the dismay of everyone, Clym, who loves Egdon Heath, announces that he will not return to Paris but will instead stay in Egdon to start a school. This dismays Eustacia, who wants to escape Egdon and live a glamorous life in Paris. When an eye injury forces Clym to take on physical labor in the countryside, he actually embraces the work and takes it on with joy. This brings further consternation to Eustacia. 

The book is full of magnificent descriptions of nature. Egdon Heath, as well as animals, plants the moon, the stars, etc., are described in fantastic language.  Hardy also embodies nature with all sorts of human characteristics.  I love Hardy’s prose style. The opening description of the heath is famous but parts of it are worth quoting here. 

The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon— he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.

And a little later, 

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature— neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.

The above contains a suggestion of melancholy, mystery and profundity that typifies the heath throughout the novel.  It is both surprising and ironic that the heath is, in some ways, drab and subdued, a place that an ascetic would feel comfortable in,  yet at the same time lending itself to such powerful description.  As the passage indicates, the intensity of Egdon lies in its solemnity. The above is also full of connections and similarities between the heath and humanity. Both human life and Egdon are “lonely” and full of “tragical possibilities.”  The landscape is more connected to the shadowy aspects of the human psyche as the above references to phantoms and dreams indicate.  I quoted just two paragraphs of description and allusion. There is much more throughout the novel. 

So much has been written about Egdon Heath. I have read a little bit online, and the consensus of opinion is that the heath is a symbol for the universe, and that the book’s characters see it as they view the universe as a whole. These views ring true to me.

A little research on my part indicates that while such heaths do exist in England, at no time was there one as large as Egdon Heath seems to be. Thus, like the human characters in the book, Egdon is a plausible but fictional creation. I would also argue that, like a well-crafted human character, Egdon Heath is a complex creation. 

Many other characters in this book are complex and interesting. Eustacia is self-centered, fickle and dishonest. Yet she is not completely malevolent, and at times the reader genuinely feels empathy for her.

Clym is an impressive figure. Though he is virtuous, he also shows some flaws and makes some serious mistakes. The Reddleman, though not really complex, is interesting because of his unusualness. “Reddleman” refers to the fact that he is a seller of red chalk to farmers for their use in the marking of sheep. The Reddleman has taken on a red complexion due to overexposure to the substance that he peddles. His behavior, though honorable, at times borders on the bizarre as he interferes in the affairs of others during his night time expeditions. 

On a personal note, I grew in a rural area. When I was young, I spent a lot of time wandering around isolated places at night. Much of the narrative also involves characters doing the same. The atmosphere that these passages exude seems realistic and comforting to me. If I lived in Egdon, without a doubt I would also have loved the place, and I would have found a lot of enjoyment in nighttime forays. 

This book is worthy of its classic reputation. It has a compelling plot, and it is filled with superbly drawn characters. At the same time, this story and character development all take place under the grand backdrop of Egdon Heath. This amazing, fictional landscape, is one of literature’s greatest creations.