Bizzaro Book Review: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

There is something wrong with me, apart from all the other things wrong with me, which is this: I’m kind of a voice snob.

When I pick up a book I ask myself these questions: Does the author’s voice grab me? Do the words do something more than simply convey information? Do they have a touch of poetry? That little something that reaches past the mind and touches the soul?

The problem with this approach is that great stories can be written in an unexceptional voice. Michael Connelly is a great example of this, an author with a voice so plodding and methodical that I never would have read him if not for the fact that I listened to an audio version of The Closers with my wife on our honeymoon.

But even though I know it’s foolish, when I’m looking for a book to read prose trumps plot most of the time.

And if there was ever a more shining example of prose trumping plot than A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines then I will cheerfully eat my hat.

It isn’t so much that the plot of this book is bad, as it is nonexistent. I’m not even sure how to describe this book to you. At some level it’s a biographical sketch encompassing the lives of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing, but it seems more interested in relating their souls than it does their stories.

Of course the high points are there. Turing creates the Turing Machine, Godel develops his incompleteness theorem, etc. But the facts you’ll find in this book are essentially the same as the ones you could find on the Wikipedia entries for these men’s lives.

But the true aim of this book is not to give us facts. Janna Levin’s goal is far more ambitious. With A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines she intends to poeticize science, to romanticize logic.

She spends long paragraphs pondering the consequences of determinism, working through her own doubts about the nature of fate through the minds of two of the twentieth centuries greatest thinkers.

And if you read between the lines you’ll see that this isn’t really a book about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. Instead it is a book about Janna Levin, a woman of science trying to weave meaning into a cold and logical universe.

This is the true conflict of the book. Truth against beauty. Logic against love. Fate against choice.

The author is a scientist bound to the material and yet it is her spirit that speaks through these pages, bitterly trying to reconcile itself to the fact that it does not exist. And the conflict is made all the deeper, all the more tragic by the facts of the two men’s lives, with the realization that through all of their accomplishments, all of their staggering contributions to science, they were made no happier, that they ended their lives bitter and alone.

As always with my reviews, I’m certain that this book won’t appeal to everyone. But it spoke to me in ways I did not expect. Levin’s use of words is powerful, and though her paragraphs often stretch on and on, meandering into new heights of introspection with each passing sentence, somehow she never quite sounds overly verbose.

If that sounds like your cup of Earl Grey, then you should do yourself a favour and check this book out.

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2 responses to “Bizzaro Book Review: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

  1. Fantastic cover. And as interesting as it sounds, I’m not sure I have the patience for that kind of writing anymore. My loss. But I downloaded the Kindle sample anyway. You never know.

    • I didn’t think I would enjoy it either. I’m not usually a huge fan of that much wordiness. But for some reason this one didn’t wear on me like other similar books in the past have. Maybe you’ll have a similar experience.

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