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Ask HN: Is "Gödel, Escher, Bach" still worth reading?
54 points by vezzy-fnord on Jan 5, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments
Since it's such a famous and lauded book, I figured that perhaps I should pick it up and give it a stab. I've read conflicting opinions on it: that it's a timeless classic which intersects mathematics with philosophy and whimsical humor, that it's pretentious or that it's now outdated.

What do you guys think? Is it worth it?

I don't think it's at all pretentious, it's just an exploration of a bunch of fun things that occurred to Hofstadter, some of which probably occurred to you too if you were musing on one or other of G, E and/or B. H. has the time to expand on them, so it's fun to read.

It's only pretentious if you consider, say, Neal Stephenson pretentious. I generally find that the people who say kind of thing that don't understand the topics, but are intimidated to say so.

And G, E & B are all dead, yet their work is still relevent, which makes them by definition timeless.

I remember when it came out: it swept through my high school like wildfire. I think every student had read it by the end of that year.

Wow. I can't imagine that happening at your standard public school nowadays. What high school did you go to?

I went to a school called Roxbury Latin in Boston. Admittedly there were only 39 in my graduating class, so it doesn't take that many copies to satisfy the student body!

Shenanigans! I call shenanigans!

I would seriously doubt 10% of a university class on Comp Sci has read this book let alone a high school class of any standard. I remember reading this but can't remember finishing it so I presume I'm one of the multitude who let it slide halfway through.

When I read it in high school, I thought it was great. I read it twice, though I skipped most of the poetry parts and discussion of Bach.

A year or so back, I mentioned my admiration to a friend, who had a copy but hadn't yet read it. My friend (a CS person with a degree in Physics) tried reading it, and found it very hard going. So I looked through my own copy (signed by the author, I'll have you know).

Yes, it's all of what you listed. It looks like I mostly skipped the pretentious parts, and read the parts with whimsical humor. It was also at a time in my life where I didn't know much about recursion or self-referential statements, which made the book's ideas all the more engaging.

My suggestion is to give it a go, skim when it gets turgid, and admire some of the lengths the author went through to explore an idea. (Eg, an exploration of the three different ways to translate the abbreviated letter of a street name from Russian into English.

Whereas the 12-year-old me loved the Bach as well as the whimsy, appreciating the connection between maths and real structures. too young to parse he technical parts though. Time to look again.

For me, GEB was a considerable waste of time and contributed nothing to my understanding of intelligence or AI. The time would have been be better spent elsewhere.

If you want to understand Godel's proofs then I recommend "Godel's Proof" by Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman:


Instead of Hofstadter's GEB, read some of his papers, e.g., "Analogy as the Core of Cognition" http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/hofstadter/analogy.h....

But there are others who have focused longer on analogy, e.g., George Lakoff:

"Metaphors we Live by"


"Where Mathematics Come From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being":


"Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things"


All of your links appear to be broken. Looks like they were copy pasted from an auto-truncated source or something.

Here's a better link for Analogy is the Core of Cognition:


I'll second Nagel & Newman. I read that in college and met a few times with a math prof to talk about it. What fun to work through the whole proof and see each piece build on the last!

Now, over 15 years later, I'm still telling myself to read GEB, but I always wonder how much point there is.

A very worthwhile book to read in parallel to N&N is Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries, by Greenberg. It's more textbooky, but still short, and it will let you see how some of the same themes played out in geometry as well as arithmetic.

I would also suggest "Advent of an Algorithm" more of a history of mathematics including Godel.


It is a timeless classic which will draw you in if you give it the chance it deserves. If you find parts to be a bit heavy, you can speed up or slow down per your personal preference. I chose to slow down and read all the more carefully. I feel I was truly rewarded for the effort but believe that hurrying through such parts would be a viable alternative -- certainly better than abandoning the book as often seems to happen.

It's my favorite book. I recommend you do try it.

Its unconventional and tackles tough topics so its bound to split opinion. When those situations arise, IMHO the best advice is to give it a go and form your own opinion.

Is the core thesis outdated? Well we still don't have a meaningful grasp on what consciousness is. We know a lot more about physical processes but little more about how the physical world gives rise to consciousness. We are stuck in roughly the same place pondering whether its just a non-causal phenomena of the brain or a different type of stuff entirely.

GEB is about the spine-tinglingly freaky consequences of feedback and self-reference. It gives rise to mind blowing mathematical results of Goedel, hypnotic images in Escher, the beauty of Bach but its not really about them, they are just demonstrations of the phenomena, the real message is that self-referential rules and information processing are the essence of computation, the core of language and most likely, the underlying mechanism of consciousness itself.

I think he is right. I predict a revolution in our understanding of consciousness will not come from a philosopher, or a neuro-scientist or a psychologist but from a computer-scientist who once read GEB...

"Pretentious" and "outdated" are among the least interesting criticisms that can be made of anything. Indeed, it takes a little effort to read things from an unfamiliar historical context, but it's worthwhile learning to appreciate them.

I'm not sure why anyone would consider it out-dated. None of the concepts are really things that are 'datable'.

That said, you'll probably find that you need to read it more than once to glean everything from it.

I have to say I was surprised by that statement, but, thinking of it...

Category theory and Type theory are replacing Set theory as the fundamental basis of Math, or at least it's fashionable to try to do so, and the book revolves around the Whitehead and Russel set theoretic work and Godel's deconstruction thereof. Which isn't to say that Category theory or whatever are immune to Godel's theorems, I have no idea how those would translate, and my gut tells me that they would have roughly the same outcome.

But yeah, anyways, wonderful exposition of the kind of extremely bare-bones framework fundamental mathematicians operate in, magnificient demonstration of what recursive and self-referential structures imply, and overall a great read.

One thing that stood out during my reading was Hofstadter's speculation on the reproduction of viruses. We have a much better understanding of that now and it doesn't match his speculation.

Thats the only thing that comes to mind and it's only a minor quibble.

When he writes about AI, he's writing about "good old-fashioned AI" -- the kind that was supposed to be advanced by clever representations, recursive data structures, and layers of abstraction.

Contrast "good old-fashioned AI" with "machine learning", where the representations are as minimalistic and low-level as possible, because the only important thing is that when you update them a few billion times the right results emerge statistically.

I don't see it as a problem that this part of GEB is "dated", though, because I find GOFAI to be an interesting topic. It involves trying to think about how you think and formalize it, which rarely happens in modern AI.

Imagine a world where brute-force alpha-beta search was just not good enough to beat humans at chess; a world where advances in chess-playing computers would require chessmasters to encode their expertise in interesting data structures. This is the world that might have been, and it's the world GEB describes when it talks about AI. It's dated, but it's interesting.

I read GEB during my final year of university, during winter break. It took about 3 weeks of solid reading (wake up, read, pause and think and clear my mind, do other stuff, go back to reading, sleep, repeat) to get through it. By that point in my life I had already been exposed to many of the topics discussed, and even unwittingly read works that cited GEB, so had been also been exposed to some of the ideas presented as well - I don't however think that matters too much.

It really is, in my opinion, an amazing and clever book. If you can, I would recommend taking a few weeks to really digest it, it is not a book you can read for hours and hours on end - you will need to stop, clear your mind and reflect on some of the points made - at least that is what I had to do.

Be warned, the book will start to mess with you...but it warns you when it does...most of the time.

The GEB was instrumental in making me a self-conscious and cynical fan of post-modernism and deconstruction, and an avid reader of tales about failure.

I recommend with a side of Neon Genesis Evangelion, David Foster Wallace and Radiohead.

To answer the question: Yes, still worth it. Just read it and make up your own mind.

To ask my own...how do people who read GEB find his latest "Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking"? I'm just starting it and it has entranced me quite a bit...

What are you expecting it to be?

Pretentious? I don't think it pretends to be anything other that what is is: A book that weaves together similar ideas, basically, self-reference and the resulting paradoxes and mystery that self-reference can generate, from the the worlds of art, music and math in an entertaining way for the layman.

Outdated? It's a classic, and cannot go "out-of-date" as in "invalid". In the same way that Bach's music, Escher's art, or Gödel's proof cannot go out of date, they can only become "dated".

Should you read it? Only you can decide if your time would be more richly spent on something else, but I suspect the answer is yes, reading GEB is probably a good use of your time.

I first encountered it in high school. In the back of the class my friend Rich would read it during second year Algebra lectures - he'd sit under the light on the emergency circuit while the rest of the class was darkened so that the teacher could write on the overhead projector while monotonically lecturing for fifty minutes after lunch.

Before the images of Escher and fractals and recursion had a couple of decades to work their way into the background noise of common culture, GEB was mind blowing. Now, with high speed internet, cleverly written essays interconnecting ideas are much more common, and Escher's black and white drawings feel less visually rich in a world saturated with computer graphics. The Bach still stands on its own, but the fact that the book can only talk about it and the reader is still on their own in so far as experiencing the music goes, and an appreciation for Bach is both the part of the book that took the longest to develop and the part which has stuck with me the longest...well maybe a skepticism of systems and general pessimism derived from the possibility that Godel might be right has stuck with me longer.

Though Hofstadter might have become pretentious in the thirty-five odd years since he wrote the book, in its time, it certainly wasn't pretentious - it was a risky literary exercise by an unknown author. It's essentially Hofstadter splattering his young and brilliant mind onto the printed page - drawing connections between the principles and intermingling Pythonesque dialogs and treating the whole thing seriously is absurd. And wonderfully entertaining for the right readers.

That said, the most dated aspect of the book is the mindshare it has obtained. The idea that a book offering such deep technical engagement could achieve popular exposure in today's world, borders on the unthinkable.

It's not for everyone, and it certainly isn't fundamental to computing and the world being more jaded and less stoned and more informed than the world of the Carter administration, calling GEB dated is a fair criticism.

Anyway, my recommendation is to pick up a copy from the library and see if you enjoy it. Life is to short to should one's self.

Its an amazing book. Anyone curious about existance, life, and how the whole system works will be amazed by the author's expertise on the subject; as if DH had been working on it since decades. Though, I would say people outside tech community might find it less entertaining (just my opinion).

I read GEB as my subway book, back in 1999 (during a work stint in Paris), during my daily commute to work. Years later, when I was looking for a change, I started thinking about GEB. Even though I had no CS background,I decided to apply to a few AI programs and wound up going to the University of Edinburgh for an Msc. in AI in '05. Now I am a co-founder of software start up that applies reinforcement learning, a method from ai -lower case ;-) to conversion optimization. Obviously, I can't say if you will find it a worthwhile read, but I do look back on it as a significant influence on a major pivot in my life.

I thought it was great the first time I read it.

Then I read "I am a strange loop" and am now of the opinion Hofstadter is full of shit.

The description of Godel's incompleteness theorem is still excellent

A prof gave me a copy when I was in undergrad and I read it over the summer and it really inspired me. I have gone back and reread sections of it over the years. I think it is still relevant and recommend it. It is definitely worth the time, my only advice is to not to get hung up on sections you don't understand, dog ear those pages and go back to them years later and it is fun to see how now those sections make sense and don't seem complex at all.

It is awesome. I've tried getting through it in it's totality 6 times to no avail, but i still await try number 7...

It is a great read.

Yes. Read it.

Read it again in 5-10 years.

100% yes. It will set your mind on fire.

I read GEB in high school and really liked the parts about Typographical Number Theory (TNT). It became useful when I lucked into being able to take Chomsky's linguistics seminar as an undergrad. The math-ish parts (generative grammar, IIRC) were easy to grok having read GEB.

I have owned and kept a copy near me since I first acquired it. I can't read all of it by any stretch, but it's at least as good as T.A.Z. for opening to any random page and finding something tremendously interesting. It is snack food for my intellect.


Mash-up. Fusion. Outside the box.

Not a revolution, but a diversionary mind bender in its day.

A format much imitated since.

I found Quora answers on this topic to be good. http://www.quora.com/Would-you-currently-read-Godel-Escher-B...

When something is described as "prententious" it piques my interest. I often admire pretention and don't take is the pejorative most people seem to intend it as.

I'm still glad I read it, so I guess my answer is yes.

Question: Is this book really that popular in tech circles? Or only because it is featured in a scene in The Matrix, thus it needs to be read for nerd cred?

It was featured in a scene in The Matrix? I didn't even know that.

It's a well-known book in general, particularly famous and revered among STEM circles. It also won a Pulitzer Prize back when it was released.

If it was in The Matrix, I missed it. But, OTOH, Baudrillard's Simulaca and Simulation was definitely featured in The Matrix, FWIW.

Ah crap. Thats what was in the movie, I retract my previous comment. It's been a while and I knew it was some book on the table when Neo was sleeping on his desk. :D

Simulacra and Simulation was actually his fake book on the bookshelf: http://thelatestreviewer.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/simulac...

It is a tremendously entertaining book to read. Yes.

With interesting discussion partners, it can make a great book club read, as there are so many possible tangents.

Read the first chapter. If you're enthralled, keep reading.


Read it and find out.

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