Thursday, January 25, 2024

Journey to the Edge of Reason

"That he is an important man is shown again and again, but he is a little crazy."
-Oskar Morganstern

Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) is famous as the mathematician who proved that mathematics doesn't quite work. The result is known as the Incompleteness Theorem, and before Gödel's proof, mathematicians assumed anything you could say with elementary mathematics (from 2+2=4, e.g., and on up) could be proven either true or false. It might be hard, it might be impossible for me or you, but it could be done. In 1930 Gödel demonstrated it can't. 

You can create mathematical statements, using math no more complicated than addition and equality, whose truth is unprovable.

Gödel was born in Brno, now in the Czech Republic, but then the largely German-speaking town of Brünn in Austria-Hungary. His father owned a textile factory and was reasonably well off. After the breakup of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I, financially the Gödels were better off with their money in Czechoslovakia, but when it came time for young Kurt to go to college, in 1924, he went to Vienna, the old imperial capital, which still had the best universities. (It was also becoming uncomfortable in Czechoslovakia for German speakers). 

Budiansky is clearly in love with Vienna. (Understandable.) He spends quite a lot of time on the atmosphere in Vienna, citing figures whose connection to Gödel is pretty non-existent--Joseph Roth, Robert Musil--but whose interest to readers is large. Vienna was Gödel's home for roughly fifteen years, and a large portion of his important work was done there, so it's appropriate enough.

But Vienna was becoming problematic. Gödel wasn't Jewish, but his friends were; as things got worse, the sort of mathematics that Gödel did got labeled 'Jewish mathematics' (What's that?) and after Anschluss, the university wasn't going to allow that sort of math any more. Gödel did a semester as a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study when it opened in 1933--Einstein was one of their first hires--and though Gödel didn't much like Princeton, his friends there kept suggesting he come back.

He was subject to paranoid fantasies (though one of his mathematical colleagues was assassinated by a right-wing student, so maybe not entirely paranoid).  His girlfriend Adele was married and under Catholic Austrian law she couldn't get divorced, so the two of them couldn't leave the country as married. Also he was inclined to be apolitical, and was politically naive. 

But after Anschluss in 1938, German law applied in Austria, allowing divorce and remarriage. Kurt and Adele married. Gödel was still sluggish about the need to leave, but after much prodding he did, ultimately taking a full-time position at the Institute for Advanced Study.

And became close friends with Einstein

Through the forties, he continued to do mathematics, working with Oskar Morganstern and John von Neumann. The later years he taught (though he was a terribly shy teacher) and continued to suffer periods of paranoia.

And why was I interested in a biography of Kurt Gödel you might ask?

I read Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach around when it came out, devoured it more like. It was probably the first serious non-fiction book I read on my own. There were various essays in 2019 for the fortieth anniversary of the book, and I thought about rereading it then, but didn't, but when I saw about the new biography of Kurt Gödel, I was primed to be interested. The biography was well done. The proof of the Incompleteness Theorem is relatively (...?) easy to understand, but Budiansky saves the explanation of that for an appendix, where he does a pretty good job, and otherwise you can read the biography without math.

And am I about to reread Hofstadter? Well, if you look closely you can see a purple bookmark there...

Austria. Could be the Czech Republic, I suppose, but no, not really. Vienna is where it happens. Last year's Austria book for the challenge was another biography of an intellectual who left in the 30s and came to the U.S., Victor Gruen.

Monday, January 22, 2024

And the winner is... (CC Spin #36)


That means Konstantin Stanislavski's autobiography My Life In Art. Though not what I expected--it's gotta be a number more in the middle, doesn't it?...😉--it should be a good read. 

Stanislavski (1863-1938) was an actor, director, and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. He acted in and directed many (all? but I didn't look) of the premieres of Anton Chekhov's plays, such as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. He lived through the Russian Revolution and on into the Stalin years, though his autobiography comes out in 1924 and so misses the worst part. He's also the inventor of the Method acting system.

Did you spin? What are you reading?

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Classics Club Spin #36


It's time for the latest Classics Club spin. You likely know the rules. A list of twenty books and next Sunday reveals the book we should read over the next month and a bit. So let's go straight to the list of twenty books.

I'm even nearer to the end of my list than I was at the last spin, so I'm going to concentrate on the books I need to finish my first Classics Club list. 

The First Quatrain:

1.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
2.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
3.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
4.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

A Second Quatrain:

5.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
6.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
7.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
8.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

Quatrain the Third:

9.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
10.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
11.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
12.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

And now, for the Quatrain of quatrains!

13.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
14.) Goethe/Wilhelm Meister
15.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
16.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

The pirates say, Just finish the danged books already.

Only one of those is long (the Goethe) and as I've already read two of the others (Giovanni's Room and Major Barbara) but didn't manage to blog about them. (Which I would do if they spin machine chose them.) I really should just finish the stack over the course of the month. 

But as that repetition is looking a little dull, and who doesn't want a bit of danger (?) in a spin, here's a few books from a potential new Classics Club list I've been thinking about:

17.) Luis Vaz de Camões/The Lusiads
18.) Harald Laxness/The Fish Can Sing
19.) Benito Perez Galdos/That Bringas Woman
20.) Konstantin Stanislavsky/My Life in Art

The Stanislavski would be the long one in that last quatrain.

Which look good to you? Are you spinning this time out?

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

European Reading Challenge 2024 Signup


Time to sign up for the new year for Gilion's European Reading Challenge. The idea is to visit European countries by reading books set there. It's one of my favorite challenges and I'll again be signing up at the maximum, five-star level, which means five unique European countries, but I hope to do better than that again. No idea what countries I'll be visiting or via which books I'll be visiting them, but I do know that the first this year will be Austria because I only have a few pages left in Stephen Budiansky's biography of Kurt Gödel.

While, as an Illinois native I'm happy to see its outline everywhere, it is a little surprising to see it just to the southwest of Iceland. (Though based on today's temperatures...) Does that mean I get to count that next Chicago book as part of my European tour? 😉

Thanks to Gilion for hosting this great challenge once again. Full details (and your chance to signup!) can be found here.

Monday, January 1, 2024

2023 Reading Highlights

Some reading highlights from last year:

Shirley Hazzard/The Transit of Venus

After reading Brigitta Olubas' biography of Shirley Hazzard (also pretty great!) I reread Hazzard's The Transit of Venus. I had some idle thoughts about blogging about it, but never did. But it is definitely her masterpiece and it was just as good reading it the second time as the first.

Two Australian sisters get to London after World War II...and live their lives. And once again I'm not really going to manage say anything about it. It's great.

Henry James/The Wings of the Dove

I a bit dread the late Henry James novels for their difficult prose style, and while I've had a copy of The Wings of the Dove for years, I had never read it. Until the awesome power of the Classics Club Spin Machine™strongly suggested I read it in January. It knew whereof it spun. Four young people, with the occasional interfering elders, and different possibilities of lovers. 

The prose is challenging, but maybe, just maybe, Henry knew what he was doing, and wasn't just doing it to be difficult. 😉

It got its own post here.

Hafez/Faces of Love and the Poets of Shiraz (tr. Dick Davis)

Hafez is the best-known poet in this volume of Shirazi (Iranian) poets of the 1300s, but the other two (Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani) were no slouches. I've read some Hafez before, but never the other two. I thought the translations, by Dick Davis, were lovely. 

I drew it out for quite a while to savor the pleasure.

"Come here a moment, sit with me, don't sleep tonight."

Olga Tokarczuk/The Books of Jacob

Jacob Frank (1726-1791) was a Polish-Jewish mystic who proclaimed himself the Messiah, and this is a 900+ historical novel about him and his circle. Tokarczuk, of course, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018. 

It's nice when something so large and so heralded actually turns out to be so good, too.

"Nevertheless it is written that any person who toils over matters of Messiahs, even failed ones, even just to tell their stories, will be treated just the same as he who studies the eternal mysteries of light." Even just to write blog posts about them?

Rebecca Solnit/Orwell's Roses

(Though I read her Faraway Nearby this year as well and it was just about as good, but Orwell's Roses, still the most recent of her books, was the one that got the post.)

Solnit goes to see the cottage where Orwell lived, as cheaply as he could, with his first wife in the 1930s. She goes, because Orwell had written in his journals that he'd planted some fruit trees and some rose bushes, and she wondered if they were still there. The roses were.

It's about Orwell and roses and political writing then and now, and why so politically committed a writer as Orwell would even think of planting roses and climate change and volcanoes in Iceland and rose-factory-farming in Columbia and Mexican Marxist painters and probably a few other things I'm forgetting about at the moment. And it's not very long. So much fascination and so much insight.

A bunch of pretty fun mysteries made it on to the blog, too.

Happy New Year to you! May your 2024 provide great reading and lots of other great things, too!