Required Reading List

Books and plays that have made me think

This list isn't required reading for everyone. It came about when I thought about the books I read as a teenager. I asked myself the question "If you could send a bunch of books to read back to your teenage self, which would you choose?". Here's what I've come up with.




The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics

Gary Zukav
Bantam, 1980

Reading this book was a watershed for me in high school. My friend Bob Kryger recommended it. He got me interested in particle physics, and we voraciously read the latest SU(3) articles in Scientific American, along with whatever else we could get our hands on.

Looking at it now, it seems rather simple. The physics is dated. But it's worth including in this list because it was a major part of that period of intellectual excitement.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid

Douglas R. Hofstadter
Basic Books, 1979

The Dancing Wu Li Masters was the book that intellectually excited me when I was a teenager; Gödel, Escher, Bach is the book that had the same effect when I entered college.

It's been years since I've read this, but I remember one thing: this book must be read twice. The first time is just for the sheer delight of it. On the second pass, you should actually do all the mathematical/logical exercises, and keep your eyes open for subtle interconnections between the different sections.

GEB is one of those rare books that redefines your notion of what a book can be. Interdisciplinary, beautiful, witty, learned, playful - it's all of these and more. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize.

In case you hadn't figured it out, it's about... well, a lot of things: the art of M. C. Escher, the music of Bach, DNA encoding, mathematical logic, Gödel's theorem, level mixing, consciousness and intelligence, and wordplay (for starters). It gave us the verb "joots". If I had to pin it down, I'd say it's about how level-mixing is the root of intelligence. But that description leaves out way too much!

I absorbed the book. That's about the best way to put it. I almost don't need to re-read it, it's so clear in memory. And boy, does it give me something to aspire to!

A final note. The charge has been made that the author is too amused by his own cleverness. I disagree. It would be a much more interesting world if people actually cared enough to revel in the play of words and images. Hofstadter obviously put a great deal of effort into writing it, and part of the point of the book was that we are human precisely because we can invent, recognize and enjoy such paradoxes, loops and correspondences.

Additional note added 1 January 2006: readers of GEB should keep in mind the fact that since the book was written in the 1970s, molecular biology has progressed rapidly. For example, in chapter XVI Hofstadter cites Crick's ‘central dogma of molecular biology’, but there is now a well-established exception to this model (prions), not to mention other tangled loops such as those employed by retroviruses and retrotransposons. So take the book's biology with a grain of salt, and remember what Sokal & Bricmont pointed out: using science as a metaphor—even in this case, where it's being compared to other scientific endeavors—is almost inevitably misleading.

Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990: An Oral History

Eric Marcus
HarperPerennial, 1992

This isn't a handbook for social activism, but it's enough to motivate me. Chronologically organized, it features over forty people recalling their struggles for equal rights.

Three in particular stand out for me. The first is Frank Kameny - called "The Very Mad Scientist" - who, after being fired from government service for being homosexual, started working for equality in the early 1960s. He tells of fighting his firing, including preparing for a Supreme Court battle. Afterward, he helped found the Mattachine Society, the first organization in the U.S.A. to lobby for equal rights for homosexuals.

There's a good story about a vice squad officer being recognized at an organizational meeting, and being put on the spot. There's a wonderful bit about being visited by FBI agents because the Mattachine Society had put J. Edgar Hoover on their mailing list, and he wanted to be removed. While it starts out humorously, it led Mr. Kameny to the realization that the FBI was maintaining a file on the Society. The Society offered a bargain, part of which was that they'd remove Hoover from the mailing list if the FBI destroyed their file and removed all references to it in others' files. The FBI didn't take them up on it.

I have to admire the courage it must have taken to send a homosexual-oriented newsletter to the head of the FBI and other top elected officials. It's inspiring.

The other profile was of Deborah L. Johnson and Dr. Zandra Z Rolón. After being seated in a private, romantic booth in a Los Angeles restaurant, the manager told them they would not be served unless they moved. They filed a lawsuit, announcing it in front of the restaurant. Even though it was a strain on their relationship with each other, their families, and their jobs, they kept fighting. They won in their case in the California Appellate Court in April 1984.

In Zandra's own words:

We had no intention of being a test case, and we wound up being heroes to the gay community. [...] ...we were willing to put everything else on the line for our relationship.

That's what love is about, no matter the gender. If that happens to me, somebody's going to get sued too!

Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty

Morris Kline
Oxford Universiy Press, 1980

You can't trust a simple axiom these days.

But could we ever. After reading Kline's book, you might not think so. He's put together a sweeping history of the revolutions in mathematics. In each revolution the foundations of the previous mathematical thinking are questioned. A classic example is Euclid's fifth axiom (in two dimensions, given a line L and a point P not on L, there is only one line parallel to L that passes through P). After hundreds of years of dissatisfaction with this axiom, some mathematicians tried variations, and created non-Euclidean geometry.

Kline delves much deeper into the mathematical thinking of the past two hundred years. From mathematics as a one-to-one model of the world, it became successively more divorced from reality. By the middle of this century, Kurt Gödel proved that arithmetic could be either complete (all statements are true or false) or consistent (there are no conflicts between statements), but not both. A consequence was that there are mathematical statements that are true but not provable.

The disasters didn't end there. In the 1960s, Paul Cohen proved that the Continuum Hypothesis, a fundamental hypothesis about set theory (the foundations of mathematics), is not provable or disprovable given the standard axioms of set theory. The Continuum Hypothesis is about the size of infinite sets. In effect, it says that there are two sets which you either can or cannot put in a one-to-one correspondence. It's your choice whether this is allowed. It's sort of like saying you get to decide if there's another integer between 3 and 4. Mathematics would still work either way, but the decision is up to you.

That's one of the reasons I didn't pursue mathematics. The axiomatic nature of the Continuum Hypothesis really shook my faith in whether mathematics has any relation to the world. This book is a must for any student interested in mathematics; it's especially good in high school. I wish I had read it many years before I found it. It's the single most important book on mathematics I've ever read.


A Doll's House

Henrik Ibsen

Nora, Nora, where art thou?

This play is over a hundred years old and it's still the most radical play I've read. It's hard to discuss this without giving away the ending, but I'll try. Nora's ultimate decision is caused by the realization that she's been living in a doll's house. Her husband Torvald treats her like a doll with no brain in her head. When she understands her situation, she has the courage to make a radical change in her life. I didn't see her decision coming, and it expanded my idea of what a person could be.

I don't see this as solely a feminist play. It has strong resonances with anyone who's realized they define their self by what others think. As such, it is a handbook for personal liberation and growth. Bravo, Henrik Ibsen!

Queen Of Angels

Greg Bear
Warner, 1990

Is modeling other people the essence of being sentient?

My second favorite novel, this is one I return to again and again. It weaves together four different storylines, three of which are set in motion by a mass murder. There's Mary Choi, detective and physical transform, searching for the killer; Richard Fettle, a friend of the killer, struggling to understand what's happened; and Martin Burke, researcher, preparing for a journey into the killer's mental landscape. While all this is happening, we follow the progress of Jill, a computer with the potential for self-awareness. And all this is happening just before the turn of the new binary millennium, 2048.

Bear's firing on all cylinders for the first time since Blood Music. The characterizations are interesting, the plot is involving, and the setting and language make you think. In this future, the world is separated into the therapied and the naturals. Most people are employed by work agencies. Language has evolved, and Bear uses that in the novel itself. Here Mary Choi is on a police raid:

Mary grabbed the rim of the door swung around sprawled across the rooftop and reached with her other hand into the entrance grabbing madly for anything she could find.

The new punctuation-less style and imported jargon ("tro shink") make for the dislocation of place that good SF provides.

Looking deeper at the novel, it becomes a meditation on the role of punishment and what it means to be sentient. For the first theme, much of the novel revolves around the technology of "hellcrowns", devices which subject their victim to mental torture. Their existence and use is debated throughout; the scene excerpted above is a raid on the lair of Selectors, a vigilante group that captures and punishes suspected criminals. In her quest to understand humanity, Jill devotes time to modeling the behavior of punisher and punishee. The question arises: what is the use of punishment. Is it to exact retribution, to rehabilitate, or to negate a threat?

These speculations dovetail with Martin Burke's journey into the mind of a mass murderer. It's not what he or his companion expect, and it reinforces the idea that people who commit crime are perhaps unable to successfully create mental models other people.

This book made me think, more than any other, about the role of punishment. I don't know how many people I've recommended this book to by now. Go read it.

And to think that this was another book I found remaindered. What a strange world this is.

For more interesting books, see the recommended reading and honorable mention lists.

Last updated 1 January 2006
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons