I was turned onto Neal Stephenson a few years ago when there were still bookstores around where you could purchase books made of paper right there on the spot. An emo salesgirl recommended that I check out Cryptonomicon. It is still one of the best books I can remember reading, and I have been a Stephenson fan ever since. When Anathem came out a ways back (I think they were shutting down all the bookstores by then), I deliberated too much and too long about reading it, so it passed me by at the time. The thing about Stephenson is that after his first few books, he became a seriously prolific writer, and all of his books are brick sized, 1000-page things, so you have to have commitment.

Anathem is set in a world where the thinkers are cloistered off in monastic societies, while the rest of the world lives glued to their cellphones eating bad food with chemicals that give them a sense of well being, and they shop in strip malls and hang out in casinos and movie theaters. It fairly resembles our world, minus the actual smart people. The ascetics live in sequestered orders devoted to various intellectual disciplines and pursuits wearing nothing but a robe with a rope tie and a magic rubber ball. They spend their time thinking about important shit, and discussing it with each other, while outside in the real world the rest of the shit seems to be falling apart. It’s like college, but you don’t graduate and become a lawyer. The two worlds don’t mix except for ten days every year, and even then the serious monks won’t come out unless it’s the turn of a decade or a century. Of course the wonderful separation of these two worlds can’t be maintained because dramatic license dictates that conflict is fun. So our hero smart guy monk sets out to save the world, both of them.

I read the little quotes inside the front cover of the book from all the people claiming to have read Anathem, and I couldn’t figure our what they were saying. And of course I rely on those comments and reviews to form my opinion. If the Dallas Morning News says my book is a “dazzling tour de force,” I know what I hold in my hands. Despite the cryptic blurbs, Anathem is thought provoking writing of a rather enviable brilliant mind. While I realize that sounds just like the printed praise that the publisher put in there because maybe they were worried people would need reassurance to read 1,000 pages of paper with words on it, but it is my actual impression. Stephenson is always good for an education in his books, and Anathem contains a dictionary (because he makes up his own words) and a few appendices that give good tutorials in spatial geometry, quantum mechanics, string theory (or whatever the latest is in the whole what the hell are we really doing here question) and the history of philosophy. I always feel stupid when I read Stephenson, which is hard for the inventor of the internet to admit, but Neal doesn’t really ridicule us for it, but rather inspires us to broaden our understanding of our world. And he helps to school us as well. Despite the seeming headiness of his writing, he also has ability to describe and convey emotional experiences that are heightened by his ignition of our minds. It’s like porn for the cognitive, except without the porn. It is an experience that I can’t quite describe, save to say that you have to have it to understand.

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