Hard Books to Understand

I have just finished James Gleick’s fascinating book The Information on the history of information theory. It is a rare milestone book for me in that it is one of three books that have really pushed my ability to comprehend complex subjects to the limits.

I say one of three books. I went through through the list of books I’ve read since 1996 to be sure. There are only three books (including Gleick’s) out of about 1,070 so far that I immediately recognize to be in this category.

The first of these was Consilience by Edward O. Wilson–a book that was recommended to me over 21 years before I finally got to it. The book deals with the theory of how all subjects are interrelated. At least, I think that it what it was about. Maybe it was more about taxonomy, or meta-taxonomy. It was a tough read.

Not long after that, I am upon an even more difficult read, indeed, one that I consider the most difficult book to comprehend that I have read. This was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I was turned onto this book by Robert J. Sawyer, who has mentioned it frequently as an influence upon his own writing. Indeed, a few months after I finished it, I saw Rob at a convention and told him how difficult I thought that book was.

Jaynes’ book is a theory that consciousness as we think of it arose much later than people thought–indeed, he argues that it is relatively recent construct, going back to ancient times, but not before. This was difficult to comprehend (my own consciousness was not really up to the task, I guess) but it was a fascinating argument (if I understood it correctly).

Gleick’s The Information has now made this elite list. Of the three, it was the most comprehensible, but I had to strain to understand it. I had to pause, and re-read passages, and visualize the concepts, and really think about them before I felt like I had a grasp on them.

Do you see the pattern? All three books are about theories of information. I find this fascinating, since, as a developer, I work with practical information theory every day. I find reading about it endlessly interesting, and yet, it is an incredibly difficult subject for me to understand. My theory is that the more abstract, the more difficult a subject is to comprehend. I’ve read math books (A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski and essays on mathematical subjects like When Einstein Walked with Gödel by Jim Holt) that have been fairly abstract and yet comprehensible. But information theory is so abstract that I find it exceedingly difficult to understand. Of course, the delight in reading about this stuff is in large part coming away with a better understand of it.

I’ll add one honorable mention to this short list: How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. The book was recommended to me a few decades ago by one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. When I finally got around to reading it, I found it to be a challenge. But not quite as much as these other three. When I scanned my list, I hesitated on this one, but finally decided that it didn’t quite make the cut.

I’m kind of fascinated by the concept of books that are challenging to read–from a comprehension standpoint. Are there books that you’ve found to be challenging? I’d be interested to know what they are. Drop you suggestions in the comments.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.


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