Friday, May 2, 2014

Surfaces and Essences (Non-fiction)

Analogies. Categories. Meta-analogies. Etymology. “Ad-hoc” Categories. Lexical Galaxy. Abstraction. Idioms. Parallels between Experiences. Domains. Me-too. Marking. Lexical Blending. Semantic Slippage. Conceptual Proximity. Frame Blending. Naïve Analogies. Words. Concepts. Albert Einstein. Theory of Relativity. Genius.

I almost feel totally comfortable calling Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking one of the best self-help books that I have ever read. Well except, that it is technically not a “self-help” book at all. It is labelled a “Philosophy/Science” book. But it certainly has helped me better understand so many of my experiences and set me on the path to some useful ways of thinking.
Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sanders co-wrote Surfaces and Essences, which has both a French and an English version. As the name implies, the book is about concepts, which on the surface could sound incredibly boring. But, the book is anything but boring. The narrative style is witty. It often uses idioms as a way to describe ideas. The book is overflowing with examples. The first part, for me the most interesting part of the book, talks primarily about language and ideas. Needless to say this is why there had to be a two versions of the book. Later on in the book, there is a discussion of parallel analogies or what creates a “me-two” experience, which for me was not as interesting as the first part of the book. Then, there is a discussion of some math concepts, again not as exciting for me. Finally, the book launched into how Einstein used analogies. At first this seemed like an odd path. But the section actually turned out to have some interesting ideas. The book wrap up is very clever.

Technically the first part of the book fell into the “Self-help” category for me. It definitely will help me be a better English as a Second Language tutor. It helped me look back on my conversations with people with Alzheimer’s in a new light. It helped me understand why two people can use the same words and mean very different things: friend, God, job, professionalism, obscenity, etc. It helped me understand why people with Asperger Syndrome sometimes tie themselves in knots trying to be very precise, yet somehow missing the meaning of a conversation. I also suspect the book will give me some ideas on how to be more creative and a better problem solver.

The book is not intended for everyone, but I think those who are drawn to the idea of concepts will be delighted. Light bulbs will go off and readers will wonder “why didn’t I learn this years ago? It could have saved me tons of frustration.”

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