Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern
By Douglas Hofstadter
The book’s second subtitle seems a concise and accurate description: “An Interlocked Collection of Literary, Scientific, and Artistic Studies”. Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot is one of my all-time favorites; this promises similar pleasures.
Metamagical Themas is a “collection of wide-ranging essays that swarm with extraordinary ideas, brilliant fables, deep philosophical questions, and Carrollian wordplay.” It’s omnivorous, and delightfully so, tackling a huge range of topics in science, math, logic, computation, language, thought, and more.
The title is an anagram riffing on Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. Hofstadter took over the column, and, following in Gardner’s footsteps, write around 25 columns over 2.5 years, which form the frame of this book.
I love the table of contents, unfolding in increasing detail: Synopsis (7 sections, 1 page); Short Contents (chapters, 2 pages); Long Contents (annotated, 4 pages). Also, all seven sections are named alliteratively. Hofstadter’s work is marked by clever wordplay and attention to the craft of writing; both painstaking detail and exuberant play.
These essays are multidisciplinary, playful, and “deceptively leisurely tours…powerful imagination-stretchers, brilliant pedagogy…” He covers much ground: self-referentiality, pattern and poetry, nonsense, chaos, Lisp, analogy, computation, genetics…plus all kinds of textual fun: diagrams, lists, puzzles, dialogues, code fragments. Mind-boggling intellectual curiosity and a warm approach to sharing it.