Popular science writer James Gleick recently published a book titled simply, The Information. Perhaps you’ve seen it? Maybe even read it, all 526 pages worth? I haven’t. But, I *was* instantly aware of it when it was published in March 2011 through book reviews like this one by Geoffrey Nunberg in The New York Times. You might notice that the review published March 18 in print is concluded by a correction added April 3 on the website:
A review on March 20 about The Information, James Gleick’s history of data organization, misstated the surname of the founder of cybernetics. He was Norbert Wiener, not Weiner.”
I, however, read it on paper, complete with the error.
Meanwhile, I caught glancing references to The Information in other magazines, on the radio, through websites, in conversation. The book’s subject matter, so far as I gleaned from these secondary sources, is information theory and includes the essentially-related subtopics of entropy, publication, computer networks, semantic chains, bits, encoding, and communication at large. Its constellation of references includes Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing’s universal computer, Kurt Gödel, Claude Shannon, Bell Labs, Norbert Wiener, cybernetics, MIT, logical recursion, and so on and so on.
All of this seemed way too close to my own interests; I was almost afraid to read it. (I’ve no idea if you can relate to this impulse, but I was worried that my thinking might be spoiled by reading someone else’s synthesis of this material.) It was as if a more accomplished thinker and writer had opened the most active corners of my brain, mined the pertinent subjects, and ghosted it into a comprehensive and cohesive commercially available non-fiction hardback.
Several close friends showed no such reticence and began reading it immediately on publication. I soon heard accounts of how wonderful the book is. They might drop a nugget, a chapter title, or just offer a generalized effusive blessing. I resolved to read it myself once it came out in paperback. This bought me some time and anyway, I hate the unwieldiness of trade hardcover books with that many pages. Surely the paperback would be a bit more manageable — I could carry it on the subway, take it on a trip, curl up with it in bed.
One friend in particular was becoming increasingly emphatic, insisting I must read the book now. In June, he scanned Chapter 14, “After the Flood (A Great Album of Babel),” made a PDF and emailed it to me. He suggested I read only this chapter now (it is around Wikipedia and the endgame of libraries in the face of the ultimate archive known as the internet), as a preview or trailer for the rest of the book. So I read it. How could I not after such an effort? It *was* fantastic and my anticipation for the whole book was further stoked by this recommendation.
By August that year, my brother-in-law toted the brick-of-a-book up on vacation to Vermont because he thought I’d enjoy it. Well, yes, I probably would, but not yet.
February 7, 2023
The-Information.pdf (James Gleick)
Designing-a-Book-Cover-for-Italo-Calvino.pdf (Interview with Peter Mendelsund)
Ada, Countess of Lovelace iBooks sample