Anathem by Neal Stephenson

AnathemWhat do you say about a book this big that builds an entire civilization from scratch and demands a lot from a reader…

I’m not going to try to write a short blurb about the plot.  I’d recommend taking a look at GoodReads or Amazon to get a real feel for it, but picture monks with math who love a good philosophical dialogue and who live in seclusion until an alien vessel is spotted in orbit and they’re called upon to save everyone.  Yes, you read that right.

I’ve been putting this review off because of so many things.  It took me many months to read, spread over lunch hours, late night reading binges, and many, many days where I chose not to pick it up at all.  It’s a massive undertaking in terms of time and brain power and is so full of detail and complexity that you’re doing yourself an injustice if you choose to skim.  It’s one of those books that really takes it’s time setting up the characters and the world (somewhere around page 250 the main plot really starts to kick in) so if you want something you can dive into, this book isn’t for you.

I think that’s where my biggest problem lies.  I could spend the entire review turning readers off of this book for this reason, or a number of others, but I really don’t want to do that because I really thought the book was great.  The time spent learning about the world pays off when it comes under threat, and getting to really know the characters is critical to understanding how they react to situations.  The final result is a complete story that is so rich as a standalone novel that I left the book really feeling like I got something profound out of it.  Now, I couldn’t tell you what exactly that was, but there is such a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment that comes as the last page is turned that I struggle to put it into words.

I’ve sort of read over a number of reviews of Stephenson’s work, not just Anathem, and the common thread seems to be that no one really agrees on anything.  He is an award-winning author, but is also really polarizing.  Some readers don’t see what all the fuss is about, others swear by him.  Some don’t “get” his work, and that’s fine, (I’m not sure I got everything either) but then don’t see the point in reading his books.  I think there’s also a degree to which literature clashes with science fiction, and this can confuse readers who typically read in one genre or another.  So put aside any preconceived notions you have about genre when you pick this one up and lug it home.

Also a quick note on editing.  I often read in reviews of long books that a good editor should have hired, or that the book could really have been half the size.  Of course, reading is such a personal thing and everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I really feel like most books are the length that they’re supposed to be.  For whatever reason, the author has decided to include a ton of seemingly trivial detail, or they don’t tell you quite enough about anything so the novel seems sparse. But everything is done for a reason, and who am I to say that the choice was wrong?

This isn’t a book for everyone, but it’s an outstanding contribution to the genre for some, so I’d recommend giving it a try.  The reward is huge if it clicks for you, and if not, then just move on.  There’s plenty out there to read.

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4 thoughts on “Anathem by Neal Stephenson

    1. Yeah this was my first, but I’m excited to read more, especially now that I have a mental survival guide. Read in small chunks, but don’t leave too long between readings. Plan to spend a couple of months invested in the story. Be prepared to look at the glossary more than once (a post-it is recommended). Don’t be afraid to look at an online forum or reading guide to make sure you understand concepts. Etc… 🙂

  1. I love long, detailed books, and actually tend to be disappointed with short books because I feel cheated by the lack of detail! I will admit, though, that I like things to be maybe a little more fast-paced than you’re describing. I still think I want to give this one a try, though.

  2. I am going to guess that this is not a good choice for an e-read, then, what with the post-it recommendation. We’ll see if I have the guts to try it after I’m done with River of Stars. I’m tremendously keen to try it now, though.

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