The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood - James Gleick

Seeing the other profusely positive reviews, maybe I just didn't make it far enough into this monstrosity book. Maybe it's just that I went into this with the wrong expectations. I expected a cohesive, persuasive, and above all, entertaining story. I expected a focus on mathematics and its complexity. Given the author's background, I expected an infectiously enthusiastic tale of maths, its story put into context by the stories of the surrounding characters: Shannon, Turing, Babbage, heck, maybe even Van Neumann, Schelling, and that whole crowd.* And maybe the book gets there...eventually. What would I know? I only made it through the first 200 pages. Maybe the author was just getting into his stride.

From the portion I read, I felt that the author's passion and obsession was with words and history rather than with mathematics. The book is probably a historian's wet dream: lots and lots and lots of tiny extraneous details, from the fact that Charles Dickens based a character in Little Dorrit on Charles Babbage to the various patronizing imperialists early anthropologists trying to understand the usage of talking drums. Yes, I know the details sound fun and interesting. But there are just so many! The book feels more like a trivia collection than a narrative. The author literally spends chapters on the development of the dictionary. Almost an entire chapter is spent on the joys and tribulations of the Oxford English Dictionary. Pages and pages lovingly detail the many spellings of the word "mackerel" and the vast significance of these permutations. If I was interested in linguistics, this book would probably be a jewel. Gleick clearly savours the minutiae of history; unfortunately, my interest just don't lie in this area.

My other significant issue with the book was its lack of cohesion. Gleick becomes almost lyrical as he rhapsodises about the brilliance of alphabetical ordering, when grouping by theme and meaning gave way to dull syntax. I feel that if this book's topics had indeed been grouped alphabetically, the level of coherence would have been about the same. The book felt so disjointed that I kept wondering if I was skipping sections. Each chapter might have had some sort of theme, but it felt incoherent to me. The chapters themselves didn't respect chronological ordering either internally or externally. We skip from African drums to Morse code, then back in time to Babbage and his predecessors. Internally, take the chapter on Babbage as an example. We first learn, in tedious detail, about Babbage's differential engine. Then, for some odd reason, it makes sense to (finally) go back and discuss Babbage's childhood and upbringing. Then we skip to his education, parties, and analytical engine. Then we move over to Ada Lovelace. Then we move backwards into her chronology, then jump forward to her meeting Babbage. Confused? I was.

Perhaps I don't really have the right to form these judgments since I didn't make it all the way through the book, but I feel like close to half the book is enough for me to decide that this just isn't for me. I would definitely recommend it for people who are less interested in maths or theoretical concepts and more interested in linguistics and the history of scientific invention, however.

*Whoops, now that I look back at his background rather than his publishing record, it makes more sense: he majored in English and linguistics.