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  • Intellectual Curiosity

    What do you think of when you hear the term "books?" Is the first word that pops into your head "stories?" Is it "textbooks," as in lots of school work? How about "dictionary" or "Law books?" We probably think of different things when we hear this word, and for me, when I think of a "book" I tend to think along lines of the "instructional" kind rather than works of fiction.

    I will stratify the types of books I like into groups, then post a few that I like in each category.

    The Great Treasury of Western Thought edited by Mortimer Adler and James Van Doren

    In the era before internet search engines, this was the one book to have that was literally an education unto itself. It contains all of the great thinkers of ages past, from philosophers to alchemists to early scientists to orators in ancient Greece and poets and thinkers of the Roman Empire. The list of its authors is so expansive, the index starts on page 1431 and runs for over 300 pages!

    I first heard about this book in 1983, my junior year in high school. My English teacher not only taught from the book and about the book, but also the incredible tale about the effort that went into producing such a tome. Adler and Van Doren first read all of the great works of the past and "present," organizing notes by both author and subject, indexed in such a way you could literally perform what search engines do today. The indicies at the end of the book have common words or expressions occuring BEFORE and AFTER the subject matter you are looking up! No other book that I am aware of does such a thing. This took decades of time to compile.

    Next, within each indexed area, Adler and Van Doren provided only the name of the book, and the author, and the pages numbers within the book, that their topic "pointed to" for the interested reader. The reader of this "Syntopicon" would then have to retrieve the book(s) so referenced, and see what Adler and Van Doren found so noteworthy. That book alone was worthy of the highest of praise, a virtual "Road Atlas" of the greatest works of philosophy and thought provoking material in human history, but it was still not the compedium I now hold in hand.

    Eventually, Adler and Van Doren went through their entire Snytopicon, and "filled in" all of the previously alluded to quotations, creating a book that is 1771 pages in length. If there was any justice in this world, it should have been the #1 best selling work of All Time. Instead, I have learned, only abridged versions of it can be found today. The pupils of Aristotle and Plato would be embarrassed to count themselves among the living today.

    I was so delighted when I finally obtained my copy, I proudly signed and dated the occasion, January 10 of 1985. I am sad to say that the front cover shows signs of wear, from having moved about a dozen times in my life since that day, and most notably when one lousy painter dripped his carelessness upon it before I had time to move it from a corner in my study.

    When someone asks you "What is that book about?" you are usually able to offer a curt, interesting plot summary without having to engage your grey matter too heavily. But Gödel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is so immersed in self-referential tenets of logic and reasoning, the emergence of "something" from "nothing," fundamental basics of information theory linked to biochemical processes, and many other facets that are metaphorically and literally ingenious in construct and content, I am often left with only "Ummmmm...." as my immediate response to such a query.

    In 1979, its author, Douglas Hofstadter, was an unascertained quantity in the literary world. Yet one year later, he won the Pulitizer Prize for general non-fiction. One needs no convincing regarding the scarcity of such occurrences.

    I obtained the 20th anniversary edition of this tome, and I am committed to re-reading it in calendar year 2019.

    Next on the list of any engineering student or math major, I must recommend The Square Root of Negative One: An Imaginary Tale (and for those who don't get the double entendre: "imaginary" refers to the mathemtical definition of the square roots of negatives, not just a type of fiction).

    All too often, we are taught what I call the "tactics" of math: the procedure to execute in order to calculate a specific result. What about the person or persons behind the thing we perceive we are being tormented to learn? How did it come about? If necessity truly is the mother of invention, what on God's green earth prompted the need for whatever mathematical device was being tossed at us?

    This book is fun to read for all of that "missing" background information. If you want an education, and not just "to learn" something, you must seek out books such as this one.

    I admit that The Poincaré Conjecture might not be everyone's cup of tea, but upon hearing that a $1,000,000 prize for solving one of the toughest math problems on earth was REFUSED by the Russian mathematician that solved it, I had to learn more about it myself. Basically, the Poincare Conjecture is one of seven math puzzles that make up the The Millenium Prize problem set. It was unsolved for almost 100 years since Henri Poincaré first put forth his supposition in conjection form.

    Spoiler alert: Grigori Perelman solved it by showcasing three separate papers in 2002 and 2003. I think that's about all that needs to be said on this one, unless you too would like to earn a million bucks by solving one of the remaining six, which are still unsolved as of December 2018.

    The final item on this list is The Works of Henry David Thoreau. This is really several items rolled into one. I obtained it for a few reasons, namely I heard some of his books with better bindings might be going out of print (and I am a strong advocate for hardbacks), and with all of the resulting turmoil surrounding the 2016 national election in the United States, both Civil Disobedience and Walden seemed like good reads. The only thing missing from the former to categorize it as a reverse-anachronistic work would be the term "Deep State." In the midst of so much obvious government corruption, when is it morally forthright to defy the orders issued by such leaders? And, kind of going hand-in-hand, when might one just want to "chuck it all" and live a much simpler life, as in the book Walden? I have spent a fair amount of time pondering both, once again, in the year 2018.

    Works of Fiction

    This is probably the more interesting section for most of you who did not fall asleep halfway through the previous diatribe. And I will continue it soon!

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