Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

In The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson’s novel of a near future neo-Victorian era, there is a book: The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. It is an education in a self-guided story.

Gödel, Escher, Bach (or GEB) is a Young Geek’s Illustrated Primer – I would not be who I am if I had not read this book. There are so many threads of my life that start here.

I have always been fascinated by Escher’s art: the mix of realism and unrealism was mesmerising to me from an early age. So when I saw a book in a local bookshop which mentioned Escher on the cover and included prints of his art – much more than I’d seen before – I couldn’t help but be interested. At the time I was a sixteen-year-old proto-geek: I had a computer and had done a bit of programming but I was still figuring out a lot of things: I was still in the “fail often” stage of learning about computers.

Opening up GEB to read I was amused by the presentation, but I was thrilled by the discussions of symbolic logic, self-reference, recursion, and how they all relate to consciousness and levels of systems. It was not merely a formative text for me, it was foundational: it coloured my interests at University and ever since – it’s why I keep trying to learn Lisp; it’s why I am interested in theories of computability; it’s why I revere Alan Turing in addition to the principals.

But the main thing is that it shone as an involving book about computational and mathematical concepts. I was already interested in these things and I could well have gone on to my computer science degree and career in software without reading GEB, but I would have been less excited by it all and I would have understand less of the underpinnings. GEB is not a textbook in the traditional sense and it would properly be grouped with works of popular science, but there’s enough detail and rigour to be able to work through the arguments yourself. I spent a good deal of time tinkering with the predicate calculus, for example. It’s well-written, which for an even semi-technical book is much rarer than you’d like.

I reread GEB every now and then, because there are always things to learn from it. I still have the copy I had when I was sixteen, although it’s battered and worn so I usually crack open a newer edition, but this is a book that is still relevant thirty five years after its first publication. More people should read it.

You should read it. Go on.

One Reply to “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”

Leave a Reply