James Gleick’s “The Information”: Book Review

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Science

Overall Rating: ★★★ (3/7) (mediocre for its category)

Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★ (2/7)

Challenge Level: 5/5 (Extreme) | 426 pages ex-notes (544 official)

Blurb/Description: The history of information as a concept, from ancient history through Claude Shannon through the present.

Summary: Writers – and, unfortunately, readers – often forget that there are no points for difficulty.  James Gleick’s The Information seems like the nonfiction equivalent of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: a book that has important things to say, but makes them so difficult to access most of the time that you’ll throw up your hands in defeat and walk away in frustration.  

While the Infie-J analogy isn’t perfect, as it’s Gleick’s lack of explanation – rather than brutally overwritten prose – that serves as the barrier, the point is that this is the most difficult book I’ve ever read cover to cover, and Gleick seemed to delight in making me feel dumb rather than helping me learn about the important topics he’s researched.  

This was an unfortunate and unnecessary decision on Gleick’s part; other books, like the wonderful Scale – that one written, no less, by theoretical physicist Geoffrey West – do a far better job of, as West puts it on p. 117 of Scale, “translat[ing] the mathematics […] into English to give you […] insight.”  Gleick could have and should have done the same, but didn’t, likely leaving most readers completely confounded by what amounts to an inscrutable mess.

Highlights: The book covers a lot of important and thought-provoking concepts; if you’re willing to use it as a springboard and do a ton of digging on your own, you’ll likely derive a lot of learning value here.  Certain sections, like the bit on talking drums and redundancy/compressibility of language, are actually quite understandable.

Lowlights: The back-cover blurb on The Information cheerily announces Gleick “does what only the best science writers can do.”  I couldn’t disagree more: there is a lot of good science writing, like Geoffrey West’s Scale.  Or Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race.  Or David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story.  Or Jonathan Waldman’s Rust: The Longest War.  Or Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds.  Or Till Roenneberg’s Internal Time.

All are fantastic examples of science writing in their own way.  On the other hand, I think The Information is horribly written.  I don’t mean that in the same way I mean that Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is terribly written – where Kahneman suffers from dry, repetitive prose, Gleick’s writing would be engaging enough to be enjoyable… if only, if only, if only.

What’s the if only?  A lack of accessibility.  This book is hideously un-understandable.  It is by far the most difficult book I’ve ever read, which is different from being tedious (this is not tedious at all, in my opinion – Kahneman, in contrast, is tedious but not difficult).  

The problem here is with the tone and the content: while there’s an abundance of valuable and applicable concepts in this book (I don’t think anyone will dispute that), Gleick has the annoying habit of using a very inside-baseball tone that assumes that most readers either have a fairly detailed understanding of a broad range of advanced/complicated mathematics and other topics before they’re ever even brought up, or have a theoretical physicist’s ability to intuit it with little effort.  

While Gleick is happy to occasionally waste a page or three on philosophical or biographical commentary that’s more or less irrelevant to the science/math, he refuses to spend a sufficient amount of time building up the reader’s understanding of concepts like set theory or recursiveness (not explained well enough to seem like anything more substantial than a pointless semantic paradox, although it clearly is more than that).  

Gleick reminds me of those infuriating math/science professors who dismiss a concept that most of the rest of us need half a lifetime or so to understand as “trivial” in a sentence or two of explanation, thereafter expecting you to know it intimately on the next exam.  

I consider myself extremely analytical and well-read, but The Information was a constant struggle: other than some relatively easy concepts like compressibility of language (which, not coincidentally, I’d encountered before in books like The Most Human Human), the vast majority of the concepts in the book would require me to do a lot of my own supplemental reading to even be able to understand, let alone evaluate, the points he’s making.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: redundancy

Instead, you should read: Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.” (PAA review + N&A)  While Ellenberg’s book only briefly touches on information theory, it is much better written.

Reading Tips: The first chapter, about African talking drums, is quite interesting.  Unfortunately, the second and third – about linguistics and the history and language – are profoundly uninteresting, with few to no useful lessons; I found them completely irrelevant in the broader context of the book.  I’d recommend that they be heavily skimmed (or entirely skipped) unless you have some hook into the topic or fascination with the history that I didn’t.

In general, you’re going to need to take it really slow.

Reread Value: Unclear

First Read: early 2018

Last Read: early 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to read again? Absolutely not

Review Date: early 2018