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[Spoiler-free Review] Anathem, by Neal Stephenson


First, some meta-commentary: I do most of my book reviews over at GoodReads and would heartily encourage you to do the same, because their interface is excellent, and I find their mixture of “convenient place to store book lists” and “social networking/geeking out about books” to be just about right for my needs. My only complaint is that there aren’t more people I know on there. OK, no, my other complaint is that there isn’t some way of specifying “I am planning to read this and already have a copy,” versus “I am planning to find a copy of this and read it” (there is merely “I plan to read this”): I can’t use it as a clever way to buy gifts for friends.

But I make exceptions for really excellent books, books about libraries, and sometimes even really horrible books. In this case, I’ve come here to share a review with you, because the book was just that good, and I’m too excited about it not to mention it here. Also, I know most people won’t have read it, so it’ll be more helpful than a review of, say, Ender’s Game.

Without further adieu… My review of Anathem: I really believe this is the best book Neal Stephenson has written. For one thing–I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I will be vague–it has an actual, honest to goodness ending. The book’s size might be a little daunting, especially to those readers who have come to expect unnecessary verbosity from him, but I think it’s entirely appropriate: he covers a hell of a lot of ground. (Full disclosure: the page of cereal discourse in Cryptonomicon didn’t bother me, or even seem out of place as I was reading it. I tend to find his writing appropriately verbose, rather than unnecessarily so. Others may be less patient.)

I won’t claim that I fully understood every idea or reference presented in this lengthy and deeply thought out tome; my background in philosophy and mathematics isn’t nearly that good, and I did kind of steam through it. But I certainly got enough of it to appreciate what he was doing–as will most readers–and to want to explore further. Obviously, I’m going to have to read it again, probably with the help of the citations that will be posted online when the book is formally published. Not being in a hurry to find out where the plot is going will help.

As for the plot, it is as good as any he’s written and better than any I’ve read in recent memory. I admit, I found a relatively non-central love story to be a little unbelievable, but not enough so that it diminished the rest of what was going on. As for other commentary, I’m having trouble coming up with a way to describe the scale and enjoyability of the plot without spoiling it, so I won’t; I’ll just say again, he covered an awful lot of ground.

And I suppose that is the real crux of the five-star rating I gave this book (and the subsequent urging I will give to all of my friends to pre-order it or get it from the library, or something, but to read it, as soon as possible): it was worth the read for the plot, and it was also worth the read for the ideas presented within. I don’t know how a book could be made that I would enjoy more.

Now that I think of it that way, I’m kind of sad that I’ve finished it, honestly.

I’d encourage you NOT to read the other reviews on GoodReads or Amazon, or even the jacket insert, until after you’ve read at least the first 3/4 of the book. The journey is better if you know nothing about it, going in. Seriously. You don’t even want to know the genre, beyond “Neal Stephenson wrote this.” Or, at least, I am super grateful that I didn’t.

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