Giving Up On Hofstadter

May 17, 2014

I have a strong dislike for stopping any book part of the way through, regardless of how little engaged I am. I’m not an eternal optimist, but I do hold out hope that a bad plot can always turn around or flat characters will find some depth. I’ve suffered the consequences and finished some books that only got worse, not better; but if an author commits to writing something then I feel it’s fair for me to commit to reading it through the last page.

So it pained me to remove the bookmark, close the cover, and set my copy of Surfaces and Essences: Analogy As The Fuel and Fire of Thinking on the ‘Finished’ bookshelf despite reading only three of eight chapters. That the author is Douglas Hofstadter, of Godel, Escher, Bach fame, only makes it worse.

The core of the book is solid and interesting. To paraphrase: analogization, categorization, and cognition are all overlapping functionality. The execution, however, is repetitive to distraction. By the time I’d seen the same concept rolled out with a different example ten or twenty times in each chapter, I had to cheat and started reading some reviews. As I feared:

Why give an example or two when you can list fifty or a hundred? Why tell a story when you can tell five of them (all illustrating the same point)? … So what was the point of those 500+ pages? And what does analogy over categorization give us? How does it change the world or even just the way we see it? What can we do with this important information? What decisions can we make now that we could not before? No hints are given.

And so, with most reviews reinforcing that there was no more to be gained from the final 250 pages than the first 250, I had to set it down. I wish the authors had self-edited to a more reasonable length so that I could have kept my ideals intact, but at least I can move on with some confidence that I haven’t missed anything.