Currently Reading: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Image courtesy Basic Books

I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and  things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.

One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.

Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.

Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.

I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.

The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.

As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).

I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.

The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.

So much for whittling down said “to read” list….

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

With In the Land of Invented Languages, Austin, TX’s premiere feminist sci-fi book club took a lefthand turn into nonfiction for the month of September. Lucky for me! As a language professional, this sort of thing is right up my alley.

Cover of The Land of Invented Languages

Author: Arika Okrent

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.08 stars

Language scaling: B2

Summary: Okrent travels the world and interviews several experts and nerds to shed light on constructed languages.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in popular linguistics; aspiring fantasy or science fiction writers who really want to commit to the bit

In-depth thoughts: I actually read In the Land of Invented Languages over a month ago, and somehow never got around to writing about it until now, which makes writing any useful review rather difficult. All I can say is that I enjoyed it a lot. This isn’t any dense, academic paper; it’s a series of relatively short, surface-level essays on a variety of constructed languages. My favorites included the one about Esperanto (I was inspired enough to actually look up Esperanto groups and Meetups in Stockholm!), Bliss symbols, and of course the background into Klingon; the actual assigned reading for book club was the essay on a woman-centered language entitled (if I recall correctly) “to menstruate joyfully.”

What’s still clear, even now, is that creating a new language—at least one intended to be used in the real world—is an admirable endeavor, based in optimism, idealism, and no small amount of compassion. Every language that failed to take off broke my heart a little, even though the logical conclusion of their success would mean a different line of work for me.  Constructed languages also raise interesting questions of intellectual property and usage. No one can own a natural language, but what about a constructed one? Does it belong to its creator(s) or to the people who speak it?

Okrent is writing for a popular audience, so there isn’t much in terms of specialized vocabulary or ultra-dense academic writing. In the Land of Invented Languages is a fun and breezy ready for language nerds of every mother tongue.

372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back: Hate Reading for Fun (and Profit?)

For almost the entire time I’ve had a GoodReads profile, under “favorite books” I’ve just put: “All of them. Except the ones you like, probably.” It was as true in May 2007 as it is today: I hate everyone’s super trendy, faddish fave, including Ernest Cline.

The cover of Ready Player One

Enter Michael J. Nelson, my childhood comedy hero, and one of his RiffTrax writers, Conor Lastowka, and their podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back. They’ve turned their attention from mediocre movies to mediocre books—in this case, the oeuvre of Ernest Cline. (There is talk of continuing the podcast and branching into other books, but so far nothing has materialized.) And while the podcast is rooted more in humor than in dissecting bad writing, the humor does (inadvertently?) highlight some of the more subtle traits of weak writing. Until we get a podcast that’s a round table of editors picking apart an anonymized slush pile, this is the next best thing.

 

Currently Reading: Ulysses

Ulysses Modern Classics edition cover
Image courtesy Penguin

It’s been my habit for a long, long while—even before I set up shop here on my “professional” site—to have book reviews written and ready to go on my blog on Wednesdays. This generally works out with few interruptions, as I average around 48 books a year. But since I’m juggling five books simultaneously (and two of them 600+ page doorstoppers), that means there’s going to be a bottleneck of reviews until I start finishing them all. Hence a stopgap measure: writing about a book I haven’t finished reading yet.

This model of book blogging also comes with a few benefits: I’m a social reader who likes to talk about what I’m reading, even if it’s a one-sided conversation with the faceless void of the Internet. And frankly, my standard review template is kind of inadequate for such overwhelming tomes, so these “thoughts along the way” can stand in for a final review post. Also, publicly logging my progress with the doorstoppers is a way to hold myself accountable for reading them. (However, psychology suggests that publicly displaying or discussing your goals in this manner has the opposite of the intended effect, so who’s to say?)

Doorstopper #1 is Ulysses, which I’m reading both because I’ve never read it and because another book friend wants to do a Bloomsday 2019 visit to Dublin. (I proposed a buddy read but I think I’m the only buddy actually reading it, but maybe he’s simply reading it on the sly and not mentioning it to me!) At this point I’m 376 pages in, or about four months in to my ten-month plan.

The first time I’d heard anything about Ulysses was when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, from a slightly-older teenager with whom I might or might not have been slightly enamored. He referred to it as “the worst book ever written,” so that’s the epithet I’ve associated with the book from my childhood, for better or for worse. I wish I remembered anything else about this childhood Internet friend, except that he once sent me a poem he wrote, without using any verbs, about the ampersand. I wonder what you’re up to today, Jay.

Anyway, on to Ulysses.

Current thoughts: Maybe I should have started with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man instead. But at least it isn’t Finnegans Wake.

I genuinely enjoyed the first two sections, but there is possibly such a thing as too much interiority and too much wordplay and too many references. I wonder how much easier it would be to track if I were an Irish contemporary reading this rather than someone removed by almost 100 years and however many miles. (The years, I suspect, make a bigger difference than the miles.)

At this point I mostly find myself nostalgic for re-reading Mrs Dalloway rather than actually enjoying the book in front of me, which is never a good sign.

I’ve been enjoying Frank Delaney’s Re:Joyce podcast, but my listening lags far behind my reading and so I don’t know if I’ve yet outstripped the available episodes. I appreciate Delaney’s little five-minute lectures on the minutiae I wouldn’t otherwise catch, but despite all his enthusiasm I can’t find the same charm and fascination in the text that he does. I suspect this is how most people feel when I get sidetracked in a conversation and start talking about caves or Korea or grammar.

 

The Internet of Garbage

One of the best decisions I ever made was to subscribe to LitHub. A recent newsletter tipped me off to the fact that The Verge was making The Internet of Garbage available for free, and minutes later it was on my Kindle app.

Author: Sarah Jeong

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.16 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A brief history of contemporary Internet hate and death threat campaigns, as well as suggestions to mitigate them.

Recommended audience: Anyone who uses the Internet but doesn’t know what “doxxing” means

In-depth thoughts: Much of what Jeong reports on here isn’t new to me, but then again I’m a digital native with one eye constantly on the Internet hellscape. Many people aren’t, though, and so when cases of online harassment boil over to the point where traditional media outlets begin reporting on them, there is inevitably something lost in the explanation. The Internet of Garbage is an excellent 101 primer on the subject. And therein is my only criticism: it doesn’t go beyond the 101 level. But since the reason The Verge put out a free interim edition of the book is in anticipation of a forthcoming expanded edition; perhaps that new edition will have a bit more meat to it.

But again, it’s easy for me to say that because I’ve kept apprised of Internet hate campaigns from the beginning. For other people, this is exactly what they need. For EFL readers, the language is crisp and direct, with the most potentially confusing terms helpfully defined.

Sacred Economics

I’ve blogged here before about my participation in Simbi, an online bartering communitySacred Economics is a book I found there; hardly surprising given Simbi’s raison d’etre and Eisenstein’s skeptical attitude towards currency, credit, and capital.

Author: Charles Eisenstein

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.25 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Eisenstein presents the history of economics and argues that we’re in the midst of a model shift from profit-based capitalism to community- and connection-based gifts.

Recommended audience: Anyone

In-depth thoughts: I read this alongside Sapiens, which was an interesting experience. It was the equivalent of hearing a history of humankind in stereo, in two slightly different arrangements. Some points are similar and mesh really well; some are contradictory and require further research and scrutiny.

I want to say, straight off the bat, that there are a lot of un-founded assertions and bizarre speculation presented here that I recognize immediately as such and, as someone amenable to Eisenstein’s larger thesis, that I regret made it in what appears to be the more or less latest edition of the book.  If Harari was too much of a materialist for my taste, Eisenstein wasn’t enough of one: infinite energy inventions by Tesla and the like weren’t quashed by greedy capitalist pigs, they just never existed; the sun isn’t powered by human gratitude and isn’t less yellow than it was thirty years ago; homeopathy isn’t a viable substitute for evidence-based medicine*. It’s hard to tell if Eisenstein genuinely believes these assertions or if he’s presenting them as a rhetorical flourish on his larger point, but either way they damage his credibility.

On the other hand, Eisenstein makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Sacred Economics represents his own theory of economics. Instead of taking anything as a given, he makes a very solid effort to defend his theory (through his own arguments as well as copious amounts of research and quoting from others), rather than taking it as a fact and spending most of the book explaining human history.

Yellow suns and homeopathy aside, Eisenstein touches on a lot of important issues. I was torn between four and five stars for just that reason: I don’t want to endorse faulty reasoning or bad science, but I also think people need to reassess their perspective on money and where it comes from and what it does. That alone makes the book worth reading.

Eisenstein’s style is warm and personal, if somewhat rambly. It should be an approachable text for high-intermediate learners, though economics is a complex topic and even after multiple close readings I’m not sure I walked away understanding everything.

*For a fair, evidence-based look at the measured benefits of homeopathy (and there are some! but not the ones its adherents usually claim), I’d recommend Jo Marchant’s Cure. You can read more about it in my review from a couple of years ago.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

I received Sapiens as a birthday present last year, and then promptly waited another year to actually read it. What can I say? When you spend a lot of your day job reading, and your free time participating in three (maybe four now?) different book clubs, it’s hard to prioritize reading for your own sake.

Image courtesy Harvill Secker

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.45 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Harari traces the evolution of society and humankind from the earliest assorted versions of humans to the present day.

Recommended audience: Humans

In-depth thoughts: Harari does an excellent job of framing human history within his central thesis: what makes societies and civilizations work is our species’ imagination, and our collective ability to create useful fictions that we can all agree on and participate in. This mass agreement, powered by a species-wide ability to imagine, organizes disparate groups that might not otherwise have much in common, or much reason to trust each other.

Nonetheless, Harari doesn’t do a lot of work to prop up that thesis in the first place. I’m willing to take it as a given, because as a reader and an editor I’m inclined to believe in the power of story, but it’s still easier to categorize an empire as a useful fiction than, say, human rights. Everything is based on a fundamentally materialist view of “existence” and what counts as existence, and I think that’s a view that needs a lot of examination and defense before it can be used as a foundation for anything.

Harari’s style is direct and simple, almost to the point of choppy. Not to the point where it ruined the book for me; it was just something I noticed. In fact, the relatively simple sentence structure he favors means that this is an excellent choice for English students. Perhaps this was an intentional style choice (if you’re explaining and describing complex ideas, no need to make the writing complex as well) or perhaps it was a result of the translation from Hebrew. I’ll probably be re-reading it in Swedish myself.

Ancillary Justice

Earlier this year it felt like I had a reading dry spell: one mediocre book after another. Feminist science fiction book club to the rescue! Ancillary Justice was the August selection and it reminded me of everything that can go right with good sci-fi.

Image courtesy Orbit

Author: Ann Leckie

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The now-embodied AI of a huge starship travels across the empire they once served to exact revenge on the emperor.

Recommended audience: Sci-fi fans; in particular, fans of Asimov’s Foundation series, who might be interested in another vision of “Roman empire in space”

In-depth thoughts: The great technological marvel of the science fiction empire in question is ancillaries: human bodies used as a extensions of a starship’s AI, something like a miniature Borg collective. Leckie very skillfully navigates this perspective and, more than being a cool gimmick, this splintering of awareness is also an important story element. Leckie’s writing is also polished and economical, with enough details to keep the reader anchored but not so many you become overwhelmed; in a way, it’s exactly how you can imagine a very sophisticated AI would describe and process the world: picking out one or two concrete and salient details out of an input of thousands or even millions, but at the same time failing to make distinctions that humans can sort in an instant. (In this case, the AI has difficulty with all of the different gender markers in the assorted cultures they encounter.)

While the story is full of invented names and languages (always the case in space opera), the clear-cut prose should be relatively easily navigable by high intermediate learners.

 

Carry On, Jeeves

Back in June I organized a book swap for the Meetup I co-organize, The Stockholm Writing Group. I came away with a bunch of new children’s books for my work library, plus Carry On, Jeeves.

Author: P. G. Wodehouse

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.28 stars

Language scaling: C1

Summary: A collection of Jeeves short stories, including “Jeeves Takes Charge,” “The Artistic Career of Corky,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “The Aunt and the Sluggard,” “The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy,” “Without the Option,” “Fixing It For Freddie,” “Clustering Round Young Bingo,” and “Bertie Changes His Mind.”

Recommended audience: Anglophiles

In-depth thoughts: Despite a life-long affinity for British pop culture and humor, Carry On, Jeeves was my first-ever exposure to P. G. Wodehouse. I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but I wasn’t blown away, either. Certainly Wodehouse is a master of the plot, and has an impeccable ear for character voice, but there is an element of “privileged men getting to do whatever they please” that is unappealing in this day and age, at least for me, especially in combination with the rather dated, stereotypical women characters. I can see what makes the stories enduring classics, though, and they’re certainly diverting. I might have also been in a grumpy mood when I read them.

Advanced learners might enjoy Wodehouse’s prose, which is polished and distinctive. I wouldn’t recommend these stories for beginner or intermediate learners, however, who might find the old slang terms too much of a barrier of entry.

Proust and the Squid

My ongoing self-directed professional development in the field of translations sends me deep into the academic and coursebook stacks at Stockholm University, most often within the linguistics section. On my last visit, Proust and the Squid caught my eye—what a title!—and, after just a moment’s hesitation, I added it to my stack.

The UK version of Proust and the Squid
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Author: Maryanne Wolf

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8

Language scaling: C1

Summary: Wolf sketches a short history of reading and the written language within a neurological framework, and hypothesizes about the neurological basis for dyslexia and other reading disorders.

Recommended audience: Elementary school teachers; special education teachers; book lovers; dyslexics

In-depth thoughts: I wasn’t expecting Proust and the Squid to be as good as it was, and I went into it expecting to enjoy it. Wolf manages to make complex neuroscience accessible to the layperson.

I debated whether to give this 4 or 5 stars. For anyone who works with young learners, this is a solid 5 stars. Wolf’s approach to typifying reading disorders and pinpointing what seems to be happening in the brain in these situations will no doubt prove useful for teachers, tutors, or parents with dyslexic children. I imagine it would be interesting to special education teachers as well, though maybe much of what Wolf touches on here would be covered in even greater detail over the course of a special education degree. Adult dyslexics might also appreciate understanding the neuro- and physiological foundations of reading and what’s happening in their brains in particular.

For the general public, I would say it’s only 4 stars, only because while the history of reading and the brain is fascinating for me, its immediate relevance to everyday life is more oddity than urgent. Wolf is largely accessible when writing about the hard science, but she tends towards to err on the side of obscurity rather than simplicity. It’s largely for that reason I would consider this a difficult book for English students (unless they were particularly motivated.) I’ll certainly have to read Proust and the Squid a few times to really appreciate it. It’s also been over a decade since the initial publication. I’d love to read an updated edition and see if there have been any new breakthroughs.