More difficult books

photo by Ann E. Michael

Some weeks back, I posted about reading “difficult books.” It occurs to me that there are different kinds of difficult books, and perhaps different kinds of motivation for reading them.

In my previous post, I addressed why I read philosophy. I also read books on subjects like string theory, fractals, physics, economics, psychology, and other topics that might be considered difficult, especially for a person who is not a scholar in any of those areas. One example is the book I’m reading now, Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, and this book explores how human beings make decisions, are rational or irrational depending on circumstances and how information is presented, make judgments, develop intuition and biases, and learn or fail to learn from mistakes. He’s a fairly good writer for the layperson, staying away from jargon and taking pains to explain his work clearly for the non-psychologist, non-economist, and non-mathematician. Nonetheless, this book–while wonderful!–is not easy material to read. One reason is that the text is about thinking, so (like philosophy) the endeavor is entirely metacognitive. Also, Kahneman’s findings directly challenge many of the things we think we know about ourselves. That sort of book is inherently difficult.

Another book written in lively anecdotes avoiding too much technical language but that I found difficult all the same is Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe. Kauffman explains Boolean logic in a way that helped me to understand not just the basic premise but how Boolean operates in terms of randomness and the development of algorithms. His book, however, takes for its subject complexity theory. You can tell by the name of the theory that this material’s a little challenging. Furthermore, he begins by writing about chemistry, a science in which I have almost no foundational understanding. I learned much from his work about self-organization of things like molecules and stellar systems, and this book enabled me to read his more theoretical text on “reinventing the sacred” with deeper understanding (and even a bit of skepticism). But easy to understand? No.

Joao Magueijo introduced me to the research and theories of young cosmological physicists through his book Faster than the Speed of Light, a book that is laugh-out-loud funny in places and written with the casual tone of having a conversation with an enthusiastic and possibly jerky scientist while at a university-neighborhood pub (there were more than a few asides in his narrative, most of which dealt with university or science politics). I know more physics than chemistry, but I can’t do the math. I had to re-read some of the pages in Magueijo’s book to figure out where he was going with his potential discoveries. I read the book years ago, yet it stuck with me; recent news about possible faster-than-light particle movement reminded me instantly of the work this team was doing in the late 90s.

Science and philosophy are difficult; and while books that involve the relationship between the disciplines (such as Hofstadter’s now-classic Gödel, Escher, Bach and Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, to name only two) are not necessarily twice as difficult, they cannot be categorized as easy-to-read, even when the author is a marvelous writer. True “System 2 thinking” (see Kahneman) means constant engagement with the text, and our brains simply get tired. But they also get exercise and plasticity from the enjoyable work of reading what is hard, a workout I find exhilarating.

5 comments on “More difficult books

  1. KM Huber says:

    Thank you for making the effort on our behalf, and while I don’t know that I will attempt any of these fascinating books–that they are is clear from your assessments–I have considered Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe, previously. Now, I’m even more intrigued.



    • Thanks! You ought to check out Kauffman. Really.

      I should also have mentioned Brian Greene’s book The Elegant Universe, an introduction to string theory.

      And I ran out of time to explore the motivation behind reading these books. Maybe in a later post.


  2. […] the pleasures of difficult reading, please see my past posts here, here, and […]


  3. […] Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections. […]


  4. […] barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) […]


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