On first looking into Hofstadter’s _GEB_
I don’t remember when I first encountered Gödel, Escher, Bach. The book was published in 1979, but I don’t think I ran into it until about five years later.
I suspect that my father had a copy, and that that was the one that I saw. But not sure of that, either.
I know that I encountered it at some point during high school, because Bruce C and I found a math trophy in the math department lounge that had the name “Doug Hofstadter” on it (or some variation of that name), and we wondered whether Hofstadter had attended our school.
At any rate, whenever it was that I first encountered the book, I loved it. Or rather, I loved half of it.
The Achilles/Tortoise dialogues were exactly the kind of thing that I liked—filled with neat and thought-provoking concepts and fun vaguely Carrollian wordplay.
But I bounced off of the alternating nonfiction chapters—the ground for the figure of the Dialogues. I tried to read a couple of them a couple of times, but somehow they just didn’t retain my interest.
I would open the book at random, and if I found a Dialogue, I would read and enjoy it, but if I found a chapter, I would be put off by cryptic references to “MIU-systems” and complicated-looking diagrams. (The chapters also included some Escher art—I had already been an Escher fan for years by that point—but that wasn’t enough to get me to read the surrounding text.)
In the end, I read all of the Dialogues, and few or none of the chapters.
And the book (or The Book, as I seem to recall some of us referring to it in high school and/or college) has been sitting, half-unread, on my bookcase for the past 35 years or so.
A day or two ago, my random-unread-book-picker picked it. And I pulled it off the shelf and decided to give it another try. And this time I started from the beginning rather than opening at random.
And lo! the nonfiction chapters make sense!
I’m only a couple of chapters in so far, so I still might get bogged down. (If that happens, I plan to start skimming, rather than giving up entirely.)
But so far, I’m finding the chapters interesting and engaging and pretty easy to follow.
I think that I could have followed them in high school. I know that I could have in college; by midway through college, I had been exposed to finite automata and number theory, and that would have been plenty of grounding for me to figure out what Hofstadter was talking about.
So I guess this is a lesson to me: steady Tortoise-like plodding in a linear order can sometimes produce more comprehensible results than Achilles-like darting from place to place.