final thoughts on james gleick's "the information"

Two weeks ago, I wrote some impressions of The Information, by James Gleick. (If you read that earlier post, do also read the comments.)

I was hoping that the book would not devolve (or advance, depending on your perspective) into scientific concepts that are beyond my understanding. I was confident that Gleick wouldn't "pull a Hawking," and force me to give up on the book the way I did with A Brief History of Time. Now I must qualify this a bit.

The Information, true to its subittle "...A History, A Theory, A Flood," divides into three inter-related sections. I highly recommend the first and the third segments, but the middle of the book offered some rough going. I found myself reading about complex math theory well beyond my comprehension. That was I was able to follow this at all is a great credit to Gleick's writing. He is quite brilliant at explaining complex concepts in simple terms, often by employing elegant analogies.

I followed along much farther than I would have thought, but when Stephen Hawking himself entered the picture, and concepts from quantum physics - whatever that means - intersected with information theory to become quantum information theory, I was completely lost. For me, the final part of the book's second segment was incomprehensible. After that, it became understandable, enlightening and fascinating again.

If you're comfortable with higher theoretical science concepts, you might love the entire book. If you're more interested in the historical, social and personal aspects of our information universe, at some point you'll probably want to skim or skip pages, then resume careful reading with the final chapters.

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Based on published book reviews, it's clear to me that most reviewers didn't read this book. They wrote reviews based on the media releases and the first few chapters, at most. I'm familiar with the world of book and music criticism enough to know how those things work. Reviewers, even more than the rest of us, are deluged, and also under deadline pressure. Along with the book or CD, they receive summaries and hype, and many reviews are written using - to put it nicely - more of the summary and less of the actual work.

One of the most egregious examples of this that I recall were reviews of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. That book contains a story within a story, a book called Blind Assassin, which itself contains a story within a story. After I read the book and unraveled mystery, I realized that many reviewers never got that far. They must have relied on the press releases, and so mistook the frame for the picture, so to speak.

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