Anathem, by Neal Stephenson (Part 1)

My First Edition hardcover copy of Anathem, flanked by Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle
My First Edition hardcover copy of Anathem, flanked by Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle

It’d be fair to say that any self-respecting geek knows of Neal Stephenson; not that he’s a particularly prolific author, or even widely-liked at that. I suggested one of his novels to this book club I’m in (Diamond Age), where it got absolutely panned. Truth be told, I feel that Stephenson has gotten more self-indulgent as his writing career progressed. Snow Crash and Diamond Age were relatively easy reading, but it took me several months to finish Cryptonomicon, and a good 18 months to plough through the three books of the Baroque Cycle. And because it took me so long to read, I’m not even entirely sure whether I enjoyed it or not!

I received my First Edition hardcover copy of Anathem as a gift from Secret Santa last year and have only just started reading it, so this post is more like my initial impressions rather than the full review. I’ll come back and do a wrap up after I finish (or maybe even spread this out over a few posts).

I’m finding the book incredibly difficult to get into. The opening chapter already contains a huge vocabulary of made-up words like Saunt, Fraa, Suur, Mynster and Concents, some of which are explained in dictionary-like entries at the beginning of each section, but Stephenson also bullies regular English words (e.g. math, cloister) into new and unfamiliar meanings. Even the regular words that he uses to describe the architecture of the monastery-like setting confound me. Victor Hugo he’s not.

A friend once said reading Neal Stephenson gave her the impression that he’s talking about stuff that you won’t get unless you’re privy to some kind of special knowledge; that’s the vibe I’m getting from Anathem. As in his previous works though, there are some very compelling ideas, and once you get over the language hurdle of this book there is a unique and possibly interesting concept underneath. This is a world where history was not shaped by myth and religion, but by religious ferver for knowledge. It’s on this that I pin my hopes for the rest of the book.

Buy Anathem


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