not a review of Anathem by Neal Stephenson

I like to believe that my personality is a bit like a Neal Stephenson novel. I’m not what people expect, even when they have no expectations at all. I can be difficult to follow at first, but the more you get used to me the more I make sense.  I’m funny in obscure and abstract ways that most people don’t understand. A few people are drawn to me and fascinated instantly, a few people find me intimidating, but most people just find me obscure and odd.  I’m filled with quirky trivia and “in jokes” that are appealing only to mathematicians, cyberneticists,  and cognitive scientists. And from time to time, I ramble on and on with no clear goal or point.

Exactly like a Neal Stephenson novel.

I’m thinking about all of this because I just finished his latest novel, Anathem. I’m totally in awe of and in love with this novel.  I’ve read it about 1.95833 times, and I plan on reading it many more.

So, just to be clear. The reason I say that I’ve read it 1.95833 times, but I’ve “just finished it,” is this: on the first attempt, I made it about 1/8 of the way through the book when I had a sudden realization about what certain words meant, so I wanted to go back to the beginning and re-read it to see how much more I understood; on the second attempt, I made it about 1/4 of the way through the book, when it suddenly occurred to me that there was an entire layer of satire that he was going for by certain parallels between the world he was describing and our own world, so I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again with this new knowledge to see what else I was able to get out of it; on the third attempt, I made it 1/3 of the way through the book when I finally started to feel like I felt comfortable understanding the 5000+ years of history and events that the characters had been referring to over the course of the story; on the fourth attempt, I made it all the way through.

So after having read the novel 1/8 of the way through, then 1/4 of the way through, then 1/3 of the way through, I finally was able to read it all of the way through, for a total of 1.95833 times through the book.

And I’m sure that each time I read it again in the future, I will understand and appreciate even more.

Don’t imagine that you’ll have the same experience.  I mean: you might, you might not. When I read a book, I enjoy savoring every aspect of it; as a result, when something is very creatively “dense” I tend to be a chronic re-reader. I can read a paragraph once to appreciate the narrative flow and style, again to visualize the scenery and events being described, again to appreciate how the dialogue contributes to the characterization, and again to enjoy the fact that the events are brilliantly executed satire of modern society. And due to whatever cognitive deficit it is that I have, I find it difficult to appreciate all of these things at once, after a single reading. So: I re-read.

So for example, on my first attempt with Anathem, I was all caught up in the language. The way that Stephenson uses language in Anathem is brilliant and amazing.  The story takes place on a planet that has “some similarities” to Earth, but is in fact an alien planet. Of course, none of the names or terms or dialogue occur in English, because they are in an alien language.  However, Stephenson explains that he has chosen the terms that he uses in the novel (the “translations” of terms from the alien languages) in such a way that they would conjure the correct feeling and mood of the original.  So, when a term is an ancient and archaic term in the alien’s language, Stephenson uses words that sound ancient or archaic in English. In many cases, he makes up new words (like “Anathem”), but borrows from English (and Latin, and Greek) in such a way that the connotations and associations that we have would correspond to the nuances and connotations and associations of the alien language.

As a result, you get “anathem” which simultaneously pulls on our associations with the words “anthem” and “anathema.”  You get “Saunt”, which is used in a manner similar to the title “Saint” but is derived from a concept similar to the idea of “savant.”  Hundreds of brilliant examples like this made my initial reading of the book almost an exercise in cryptography: figuring out exactly what senses and nuances Stephenson was trying to conjure with his word choices.

But because I was so caught up in the language the first time through, I had very little idea of what was actually going on. When I got to the point where the main character was embarking on a huge annual event (the “apert”), I suddenly realized that I didn’t really have a sense of who this character was… because I’d been thinking all about the language instead of focusing on the character. So: back to the beginning of the novel I went.

On the second try I got to know the main character: a young, anxious student who is afraid that he doesn’t have what it takes to “make it” in his studies. So I was savoring his character, but I still barely understood the culture that he lived in. I was constantly being bombarded with the names of historical figures, factions of different organizations, and different philosophies that were constantly being discussed and pitted against each other.

Now, bear in mind: Neal Stephenson does a great job of exposition through dialogue and action. In the first section of the book, the main character finds himself giving a tour of his own school and then later exploring out in the city outside: both of these types of events provide plenty of opportunity for the author to have characters explain things to the reader. So although the book is dense with ideas, all of the information is there. If you concentrate, you can get it.  My problem is that while I was filling my mind and emotions with understanding the character, I didn’t pick up on the details of the history and social setting as well as I could have.

But there was one moment when a light bulb went on in my head. Suddenly, I felt like I understood how the different factions, different schools of thought, had emerged over the history of this culture that I was being immersed in in this book. I thought to myself: “Oh! I get it now!”  In that moment, I suddenly realized that I wanted to go back and read from the beginning again, now that I understood who some of the historical people were and how they were related to one another.

So back to the beginning, again, I went.

On my third read-through, I finally felt comfortable enough with the language, the characters, and the history, that another aspect began to shine through: the brilliant comical satire that runs throughout the book.

It’s not as if I hadn’t noticed it at all on my previous attempts. In some cases, it’s obvious enough to jump out at you even if you’re not paying attention: the misunderstandings that arise from different uses of the word bulshytte; the way that the slines will comically look at their jeejahs to check the time even when they are standing right next to an old-fashioned clock; and so on. But not until I felt comfortable enough with the characters and the prose did the real depth of the satire sink in.

In some ways, the entire thing is written in the tradition of the old 19th century science fiction satirists. Like “Gulliver’s Travels”, this book sets you down to explore a world that is “similar to” our own (wink, wink), and is able to illustrate the strangeness and absurdity of our own world by making us look at our own world as if it were alien. You will recognize it in everything from the description of the slines (who are sick because they are both starving and too fat at the same time) to enumeration of stereotypes that the “saecular” people have of people in the “mathic” world. Many of the descriptions are funny, but in that sly intellectual way that you only notice if you’re paying close attention.  Wanting to get a deeper appreciation for this multi-layered humor that is woven throughout the book is what drove me back to the beginning for the forth, and final time.

I’m sure there are things that I’ve missed. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

So please bear in mind: This is not a review of Anathem.

It’s more of a love letter. I’m describing my reaction to the book, the way a young lover might describe the effect that his True Love’s hair and eyes have on him: making his heart race, making his fingers tremble.

Of course, this might not sound like a love letter to you.  You may read this and think: That book sounds terrible! Why on earth would I want to read something that is so complex and difficult to get through?

If that’s your reaction, then I say: trust your instincts! The book Anathem is not for you.

But if what I have said fascinates and intrigues you, and makes you want to know more… then I’ve accomplished what I want to accomplish.  You are the sort of person who should read this book.


Neal Stephenson reads from Anathem