May 14, 2015

Surfaces and Essences

If the goal of reading a book is to learn something about yourself or about life itself, then the most important thing I learned from reading Surfaces and Essences is to never ignore the sticky notes another reader has left in the front of the book.

I picked up Surfaces and Essences from the library, as I do most books, and upon opening it, I discovered someone named Libby had left a note inside to be read before beginning the book. Being slightly obstinate, I ignored her pleas to stop and read her notes before rifling through the book.

Notes in my copy of Surfaces and Essences

The full text of her note is below. I’ve also included a photo of the note above, as I’m quite impressed with her choice of stationery and her very nice handwriting.

Stop! Before you go any farther — before you dedicate a minute, an hour, a day (or days) on this book, there is something you need to know: it’s not worth your time. There. I said it. It took a lot of guts, trust me. I can express to you in about 2 sticky notes the entire book:

An analogy is drawing an inference or comparison between two objects or concepts. it’s the rhetorical equivalent of a metaphor. Or: A is to B, as C is to D.

That is all you need to know. Sure, there are great examples throughout S&E (mostly about two men going out for coffee” but not ordering coffee) but Hofstadter always goes one step too far. Please read these section on the sandwich for a perfect example of what I’m talking about (pg 214). If you can stomach that, then you might make it through the book.

Many of the ideas are hijacked from others & the organization is pretty weak.

That being said, you will read what you want to read, my opinion be damned. But don’t say I didn’t warn you!


She wasn’t wrong. Surfaces and Essences took almost 700 pages to explain what a basic analogy and a basic equivalency was — all things many of learn in our freshman year of college. There are probably more concise and entertaining articles online that explain it further; investing several hours into this tome is unnecessary.

There are some humorous and some interesting passages, and some of the examples help make comprehension easier, but overall, the key learning from Surfaces and Essences is something that can be quickly expressed in a much shorter, and more captivating, piece of writing about rhetoric.

I did learn one key thing: if I ever come across another book with a note from Libby, I’ll be sure to read it first and heed her advice.

→ Marginalia