Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

by Douglas Hofstadter

A Crystal Bead

Aug 2001/Spring 1990 (see below)

In honor of the 20th anniversary, I put up a review I wrote 11 years ago, for a school assignment:

When I am feeling that life is pointless or unwondrous, I read Douglas Hofstadter's =Godel, Escher, Bach=; time and time again, this book leaves me in awe over the interconnectedness of several "unrelated" subjects, over order arising from apparent chaos. This book made me regain my faith in and admiration of the beauty of math, art, music, and the universe -- the beauty that is almost never shown in a class or revealed in a "scholarly" work; after reading it, the isolation of those subjects from the rest of the conceptual world seems simply ludicrous. Each time in reading I am challenged to discover more connections, more self-references, more meaning in the several subjects presented. In short, reading this book is like a religious experience for me -- I love it.

From GEB: "The Buddhist allegory of 'Indra's Net' tells of an endless net of threads throughout the universe...At every crossing of threads is an individual and every individual is a crystal bead. The great light of 'Absolute Being' illuminates and penetrates every crystal bead; moreover, every crystal bead reflects not only the light from every other crystal in the net -- but also every reflection of every reflection throughout the universe."

Hofstadter's book is the perfect example of one of those crystal beads; Hofstadter portrays (or "reflects") several subjects in his work, e.g., formal systems, Zen, moplecular biology, the art of fugues and canons, model of the brain, various geometries, number theory, Holism vs. Reductionism, and much more, and then shows the "reflections" of the subjects in one another -- truly a large task. For the most part, he comes across quite well; his dialogues which encapsulate and discuss ideas to be presented, his "dogmaps" which outline parallel ideas and "map" them onto one another, and his relatively simple language enable him to communicate his ideas quite easily. However, this book is quite weighty -- almost 800 pages long, full of digressions and perspective-blowing ideas; many ideas and underlying themes must be sought out within the dialogues, many open-ended questions are left for the reader to ponder. If you aren't used to flexible or abstract thinking, and you don't want to work very hard in reading, this book isn't for you.

GEB is an unique "nonfiction" book -- it does not address one subject, or even several "closely related" subjects. Even though published in 1979, many parts deal with research still going on today [this is still true in 2001, as it was in 1990]. For example, Hofstadter presents a possible model for a brain to be used in artificial intelligence in computers -- one of many models being studied today in that field. In one short section, he presents recursive graphs that were generated in theoretical experiments -- graphs that bear some similarity to the modern study of fractals. Especially in the area of computer science, Hofstadter leaves several goals for people to attain -- goals that may never be realized, but perhaps goals that will enlighten us as we seek to attain them.

The ideas in this book shall live long past its authorr; I can say no more but that the people who awarded the Pulitzer Prize to this book made no mistake.

Not bad for a 16-yr-old, eh? I can still see a meaningless tendency to 25-cent-words, but that's harmless. I hope I knocked this off in a hurry, it seems a bit thin compared to my real experience of the book. Oh yeah, I got a 100 on this assignment.

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Mary Pat Campbell, last updated Aug 2001