Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Gödel, Escher, Bach - 20th Anniversary Edition / Douglas R. Hofstadter
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Friday, 30 April 1999
(A complete review of Gödel, Escher, Bach appears here.)

In an interview to Wired magazine a few years back, Douglas R. Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (GEB for short) complained that most people, even those who actually read the book, couldn't tell what it's really about. Yes, it talks about music and art, mathematics and zen, biochemistry and computer languages; but none of these is what the book is really about.

This seems to be a real problem, because in the new “20th Anniversary Edition” of the book, Hofstadter says that the question “so what is this book about?” haunted him since he was scribbling the first drafts, back in 1973. Now, twenty years after its first publication (in 1979), the author decided to clarify the matter once and for all, and added a new 23-page preface that, among other things, clarifies the issue.

So -- what is this book about? The New York Times bestsellers list originally summarized it as “A scientist argues that reality is a system of interconnected brains”.

Hogwash.

The Hacker's Dictionary (also known as The Jargon File) says it's “a brilliant tapestry themed on the concept of encoded self-reference”. Brilliant, yes; but otherwise not very accurate. Another common definition is “a book that shows how math, art, and music are really all the same thing at their core”. Hofstadter says he heard this one over and over again, even by people who read the book, and it is (in his own words) “a million miles off”.

My own review of the book, the single most popular page on my web site, says that the book is about “the question of consciousness and the possibility of artificial intelligence. It is a book that attempts to discover what 'self' really means”.

Much closer (but then, I had the advantage of reading that Wired interview).

“In a word,” writes Hofstadter in the new preface, “GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?”. His explanation goes on, and clarifies at least one thing: despite its beautiful playfulness, GEB is a serious book presenting a serious theory about consciousness. Despite its popularity, it is not a “popular science” book.

If you already read GEB, you're probably wondering what else is new in the 20th Anniversary Edition -- other than the new preface. Certainly, there were many possibilities. Most ideas were about additional chapters -- about progress made in the last twenty years in the field of artificial intelligence, or about machine translation, and more. There was also the idea of including a new dialogue, that was previously published elsewhere. Wilder suggestions went as far as releasing GEB with a CD-ROM including Escher's art, Bach's works and recordings of all of GEB's dialogues by professional narrators.

None of that.

Not a word was changed; not a figure added; not even, the author admits, the few typos fixed. The book is a facsimile of the original release, with even page numbering left intact (the preface pages use a separate numbering scheme, from P-1 to P-23). The CD-ROM suggestion was turned down because Hofstadter “intended GEB as a book, not as a multimedia circus, and a book it shall remain”. The other suggestions were turned down for more delicate reasons.

But while the preface is the only change, it is a very important one. For first-time readers, it clears several aspects of the book before they commence reading. This is important, especially because GEB is anything but an easy read (some compared reading it to giving birth). For returning readers, the introduction clarifies many things, and sheds a new light on several aspects.

In addition to establishing, once and for all, a formal definition to what the book is about, the introduction also describes the history of the book, and the history of its author for the last twenty years. You probably heard about the books he wrote later -- Metamagical Themas, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, The Mind's I (as a co-editor), and Le Ton beau de Marot: in Praise of the Music of Language (reviewed here). These books cover much of the suggested additions to GEB: Fluid Concepts, for example, covers Hofstadter's research work, while Le Ton beau de Marot includes a lengthy discussion (or rather, a lengthy attack) on machine translation -- among many other things.

The preface also talks about GEB's translations, a suggested sex-change operation for the Tortoise, a brief account of Hofstadter's recent literary efforts, and more.

Since you probably owe yourself a re-read of the book (you did read it before, right?), the new edition is as good an excuse as any to start now.

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Of bibliographies and Strange Loops
In many ways, I'm glad that the 20th Anniversary Edition didn't change a word of GEB. However, there is a single change that I would have really liked to see: an updated bibliography.

GEB's bibliography is as magical as the book itself. It is a treasure-trove of book recommendations and, after reading it, I've taken it upon me to read many of those books. I've already read quite a few of them: Petr Beckmann's A History of Pi, Mendel and David's The Bach Reader, J.M. Jauch's Are Quanta Real?, Nagel and Newman's Gödel's Proof, and of course, Copper, Silver, Gold.

What really interests me is -- what books would Professor Hofstadter had added to this list, twenty years later? I think I can guess some: certainly books about the solution of Fermat's Last Theorem (such as Simon Singh's book, reviewed here), and theories about the 'self' opposing his own, like Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind (reviewed here). But -- what else? That, I'd really like to know.

One interesting tidbit: when reading Jauch's Are Quanta Real?, I was surprised to see it includes a foreward by ... Douglas R. Hofstadter, which describe the book as one of his inspirations when writing GEB. So GEB is referenced in a book that GEB itself refers to... A strange loop made possible only by the magic of reprints.

(Update: a new reprint of Gödel's Proof also boasts a new introduction by Douglas R. Hofstadter.)

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