When you own a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach

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I remember the first time I was shown this book by my High-school Maths teacher Mr.Boerema when I was about 16.

It’s a beautiful volume. The 20th Edition front cover design has the letters GEB projected as shadows onto three orthogonal faces joined together through centered lighting shone between two hanging figures making the image seem golden, and Gödel, Escher, Bach etched in white on a black background at the very bottom in all caps. And don’t even get me started on the contents. It is a book about mathematics, symmetry and music, and I remember thinking that it was the most exciting and beautiful thing I’d never understand.

I wanted to own a copy so badly, but I felt unworthy of even holding it. I felt that I knew so little with my pitiful high-school level maths and that was somehow shameful so I told myself I would not know what was going on anyway.

In retrospection that just seems silly. Who would care if I bought the book and didn’t understand a thing? Surely the author doesn’t keep tally of all the unworthy mathematicians buying a copy and openly chastises them? It seems clear to me now that curiosity alone is a good enough reason to pursue any academic or intellectual desire, regardless of experience, prior knowledge or the subject.

I saw the book again at a dear friends’ apartment. It made me realize that even now I fail to take the first step in the right direction because of all the wrong reasons, and this is something I have heard PhD students reflect upon. As amazing as the experience at an Ivy League institution is, in this case it surely does not put things into perspective.

The competition here is fierce, and the volume of learning extremely high, and that makes it so much easier to lose sight of, I don’t want to say what’s important, but what drove us here, together, in the first place. This manifests itself so painfully clearly during finals season. But what about that aching and that longing to read more and to know more and to finally understand more and maybe make sense of everything, or anything at all?

I came across the copy at Phoebe’s flat. The very same edition. She is a mathematician, an artist, and I am unspeakably drawn to her intense curiosity in beauty and in life. Leafing through its pages I felt somehow sane before having to go through the strange ritual of writing down selective material for two hours in a rigid format on all of the value that I have accumulated over an four months.

I still don’t own a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach, but I think I might know just the thing to get myself this Christmas.

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