Third Time’s the Charm? Re-reading GEB (again)

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It has been described as, “The book for which there is no appropriate description.” It incorporates symbolic logic, cognitive science, Zen Buddhism, mathematics, consciousness, art, music, and much more. I first heard of it my freshman year of college while browsing E2, where it was (mostly) discussed with reverence and awe. Intrigued, I ventured over to the Tulane book store, and was happy to find that they carried it.

I bought it. The first time.

I tried to read the book. “Tried” is an inaccurate word for what I did. When reading it, I alternated between fascination and bewilderment, driven to read more by my curiosity, hampered from progressing as far or as quickly as I wanted by the complex content of the book. At around 2/3 of the way through the book, I came to a standstill. Hindered by a tough academic schedule, what I retrospectively think was a minor bout of depression, and my emotional and intellectual immaturity at the time (I was 17), I read no further. GEB stayed on my bookshelf, waiting.

About a year and a half later, during the summer, I had another go at reading GEB. I got a little less far through the book before being distracted once more by something or other. Another few years passed, and the book, like many other books I owned, was destroyed by Katrina. It is the only book I lost in the flood that I have since repurchased.

There’s something intriguing about GEB. It alternates between clever and illustrative dialogs, and denser, more intellectual material. The latter ranges from discussions of Escher paintings and Bach fugues to dense symbolic logic. Throughout, it is clear that the author (Douglas R. Hofstadter) has something profound to share, something he’s quite excited about. He’s also delightful to read, not afraid to make bad puns or invent words to suit his purposes. And yet, ultimately GEB is the work of a bright, enthusiastic, yet intellectually immature young man. The book itself is a little older than I am, and started as a short pamphlet when the author was in grad school. In-between the simple and illustrative dialogs of Achilles, Mr.Tortoise, and their friends, the reader is hit with a full-bore brain dump from a genius. It lacks the polish and direction that more experienced teachers apply to their lectures and writing, lacks the understanding of reader’s perspective that allows ver to follow the author’s train of thought reliably.

This year (2007), Hofstadter released another book, entitled “I Am a Strange Loop“. I read it. This is the book that GEB wanted to be. As much is said by the author in the book itself. I finally got what I wanted from GEB, a conceptual (rather than rigorous) understanding of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and its plausible application to consciousness and the so-called mind-body problem. Hofstadter’s years as a professor have honed his ability to simplify the message and keep a steady train of thought on paper. If you wish to attempt reading GEB, I suggest you read IAaSL first.

Once I digested the concepts of IAaSL, at a higher and more abstract level, I felt ready for a third (and final?) plunge into GEB. It is as though I have the map this time, rather than wandering lost in the woods. So far it is going well, though I am tempted at times to skip the puzzles. I also have to watch myself, to recognize when it’s time to take a break. GEB is not a book that I can read when I’m tired, when I’m agitated, or otherwise prone to distraction. It requires my full attention. Nonetheless, between my better conceptual understanding (courtesy of IAaSL), and what I think is an improvement in my intellectual maturity, I am finding even more to enjoy in GEB this time around.

One more thing before I end this rather long post. GEB is a very special book to me. It is one of three books that finally convinced me that there is no need for a creator God, or Intelligent Designer. All of the wetware in our heads, in its fantastic complexity, is enough to produce a “strange loop” and give us what we call consciousness. There is no need for a soul, a “ghost in the machine”, and this book helped to confirm to me that this is the case. The other books, if you’re curious, are “A New Kind of Science” by Stephen Wolfram, and “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins.

One thought on “Third Time’s the Charm? Re-reading GEB (again)

  1. Anthony


    I just purchased GEB … Before reading this heavy book, I thought just like you, I mean, it’s better to understand IAaSL first and then only attack the huge cake …

    I don’t like the weight of the book. Even the price : 47 euros …

    I read a lot on blogs on this book and at last, I’ll start reading it. Thanks for your article, glad to know that there are people out there who are interested by enthusiastic subjects instead of daily chores.


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