Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Last week I finished reading Neal Stephenson's new 900 word page novel, Anathem.  I generally prefer short novels but I made an exception here because of the book's ambitious scope – the novel includes an invented vocabulary, echoing Ridley Walker, and is inspired by the Clock of the Long Now.

I found the book literally heavy and slow to start, but ultimately rewarding although I'm convinced it could have shed 300 pages.  Interestingly, some things that appear to be bad writing in the early part of the book are later revealed as subtle foreshadowing (it's hard to go into much detail without ruining the effect of the second half of the book).

I think Anathem was interesting, describing a complex world and playing some interesting games with science and philosophy.   But I'm not convinced it worked as a novel.  The world building and philosophical dialogues killed the story's flow, despite being fascinating.  The characterisation was scant, and the adventure-story style sections seemed out of place.

Nearing the end of the book I found myself thinking it would have worked better as a computer game or website.  The different type of content would have fitted together more naturally.  You could explore the areas that interest you, and even have more detail than the book allowed (I suspect Stephenson has piles of notes that wouldn't fit into Anathem as a novel, in addition to the audio material that is available separately).  It's interesting to see how Anathem failed as a novel – it simply didn't fit the medium. 

(Michael Dirda's review of Anathem is well worth reading.  I don't think I'll be keeping my copy of Anathem so if anyone from Brighton wants my copy leave me a comment).

Haruki Murakami and running

Thanks to an email from Disappointed Kid, I learned that Haruki Murakami's new book is called What I talk about when I talk about running (the title apparently a Raymond Carver reference). I have a strange relationship with Murakami, in that most of his books leave me cold, apart from South of the Border, West of the Sun, one of my favourite novels.  At the same time, I find Murakami fascinating: how can you not love a writer who was "inexplicably inspired to write his first novel … while watching a baseball game"?

Apparently Murakami took up running in 1982 and now runs long
distance, aiming to complete a marathon each year.  His new book
reflects on the links between running and his writing and comes out on August 7th (just before the half-marathon!).  An extract of the new book was published in the Guardian:

"Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he's accomplished what he set out to do.  The same can be said about my profession. In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won and critics' praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matters. What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. I'm at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that's not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday."

Which leaves me waiting like ginquinn for the release date of the new Murakami book.

"Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn't write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower."

What books are for

Via boingboing, an article from the Telegraph’s property section entitled Rooms that lose none of their shelf life‘.  Apparently more people want libraries in their homes than home cinemas, gyms or music studios.   Prompted by a survey frm Legal and General, we learn from the article that "as well as furnishing a room, books confer a certain elegant ambience on a property".  And, according to a spokesperson from the Bookseller, "Books are the original insulator. A shelf of books along an outside
wall works well to prevent heat escaping.  If all
the books were removed from the homes in Britain, our energy bills
would rocket.

All those workshops learning how to write prose when what I should have been doing was focussing on what books are really for: interior design and energy conservation.