Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

May 11, 2010

If the measure of a good book is that it inspires you to action, then this 2010 Tournament of Books contender is a good book.* I am going back to my copy of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on the strength of the curiosity inspired by this book. Whether a higher recommendation than that for this book can be made, I do not know. Even so, I am not sold on graphic novels as a concept.

As the book begins, a man pages through a book entitled Foundational Quest Draft. He has a thought bubble: “It’s such a sad tale! And yet…” He yawns. He notices the “camera” and apologizes. The man explains who he is and what the book is about. So begins, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth.

The explanation given by the man, Apstolos, is as follows:

You see, this isn’t your typical comic book. In fact, when we started work on it, our friends thought we were crazy! And when they did take us seriously it was, as a rule for the wrong reasons. Like thinking the book is something it’s not! Like maybe a “Logic for Dummies” type of thing or perhaps a kind of textbook or a treatise in the guise of a graphic novel. But it’s not! In this, it’s just what 99.9% of comic books are an honest-to-goodness real yarn. Simply, a story!…Ours is rather unusual in this sense: Its heroes are all logicians.

Bertrand Russell is the primary hero, the one we follow most often. The graphic novel has an interesting structure, weaving bits from the creation of Logicomix together with Russell’s childhood, his adulthood, the lives of other logicians, and short attempts to explain the technical issues with which Russell, Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel, and others were obsessed. The structure is managed fairly seemlessly and, despite jumping from Russell’s childhood to the author’s modern day trip around Athens, it works.

Graphics, I would assume, are an important part of a graphic novel. I am not at all the right person to critique the drawing, but it did not seem particularly groundbreaking or beautiful. There were shifts in style between story sections which, I believe, helps signal to the reader which time period and characters are in the fore. In other words, all I can really say about the graphics is that they were not intrusive which is probably the best compliment I can pay them. They served the story well.

The story itself is an interesting one. The story covers the life of Russell with digressions into the lives of other logicians, basically the development of the modern field of logic until the original vision (a complete logical system that is self-proving) was proven impossible to obtain. The graphic novel, however, left me wanting more. Logicomix is about 313 pages long, not counting the “Notebook” at the end with short entries on key terms and characters. The excerpt above was about a page. My point is that if you condense all the prose into a conventional novel/biography, the book would be less than 100 pages. Hardly enough to provide great detail about either the logic or the characters.

This is not a failing of the book, however. If you want the story of Russell’s life (or the lives of other logicians), there are rigorous biographies (as well as Russell’s autobiography). For the logic, there are excellent summaries as well as the source material (e.g. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). These in depth treatments are widely available, but this graphic novel fills a niche.

Logicomix gives enough of each part (the characters, the logic, the story) to leave you wanting more. The authors and illustrators have managed to convey the emotion, the sense of intellectual adventure, and the intriguing stories that pushed the development of logic forward. The ideal audience is likely adolescent or late adolescent boys and girls. They can breeze through this book where the same child/young adult may never be tempted to crack a rigorous biography or philosophical treatise. My daughter is thirteen and paged through it. She was not hooked. Yet. Likely, because she has not yet read enough of Logicomix, but possibly because she is not quite ready for the subtle excitement of the quest for objective, provable truth.

Of course, if the first panel she picked up started with this conversation between Russell and Wittgenstein, I can see the problem:

Russell, you waste so many pages to establish sets! [next panel]

Of course we do, set theory is essential to our argument.

The bloody ass Hilbert calls it a “paradise”! But it is Hell! A Hell through whose gates…[next panel]

…the monster infinity creeps into mathematics!

“Creeps in”? What rot! Infinity is already there from the start, old chap! [next panel]

It’s in the conceptual universe, prior to our poking our puny little brains into it!

Ach, Russell, I am in such pain! [Wittgenstein writhes in agony.]

At first glance, she may not understand the drama of the situation. This is understandable. But it is a bit exciting if you have followed it from the beginning. I am sure of it.

If you do have an interest in the ideas of Russell, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Alan Turing, Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, John Von Neumann, and logicians generally, I can highly recommend the book as an appetite whetter. If you have little interest in their ideas, I highly recommend the book as a way to gain some painless exposure to those ideas. The ideas are fascinating. Do not expect too much. This is a comic book. But it is a very smart comic book and a very successful one.

*Unfortunately for Logicomix, the graphic novel faced Wolf Hall in the first round and, thus, its Cinderella run ended before it began.