Entangled in Anathem

Entangled in Anathem

I love this recent post at Lit Hitchhiker: Why Do We Talk About Books?. It’s a great blog post and the discussion in the comments is really good too. (So go read it all don’t just rely on the little snippet that I’m going to quote for the sake of this post.) What really struck me the most, though, was the quote from Wolfgang Iser of the passage that prompted the post:

“This is why, when we have been particularly impressed by a book, we feel the need to talk about it; we do not want to get away from it by talking about it – we simply want to understand more clearly what it is in which we have been entangled. We have undergone an experience, and now we want to know consciously what we have experienced.”

As I sit down to write about Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem, I keep thinking about this notion of entanglement. This book was one of those books that particularly had that effect on me. I don’t want to stop thinking about it, I want to talk about it all the time just so that I can “know consciously what [I] have experienced.” 

Anathem takes place sometime in the future on another planet, Arbre, that is similar to ours with an intellectual history that is remarkably parallel to our own but with a few key differences. Thinkers in their history came up with the same basic ideas in eerily similar ways but the rest of their history seems to follow a vaguely different path. Civilizations rose and fell and wars happened but none of those details really seem to matter in the story. What matters is the ideas. This is very much a novel of ideas.

One of the things I loved was how Stephenson continually kept me on that edge, everything seeming familiar enough to engage my sympathy and yet strange enough to arouse my sense of wonder and excitement at new discoveries. One of the primary means he uses is language. The novel is filled with these subtle punnish neologisms—each section begins with an excerpt from The Dictionary—which capture that familiar/uncanny paradox and are just fun plays on words. This begins with the title Anathem:

(1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in a ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2.
(2) In New Otrh, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas). See Throwback.
—THE DICTIONARY. 4th edition, A.E. 3000

The story follows an unlikely hero, Fraa Erasmas, who lives in a cloistered community called a math which has a highly structured day, complete with various communal liturgies, that feels very much like a medieval monastery and yet this community is not religious but rather seems to be a haven for philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists who live very simply, choosing to eschew the high tech Saecular world.

If you’re like me the kind of reader who gets excited by plays on words and intrigued by puzzles and ideas, this is a novel for you. It is very much a conundrum to be puzzled through and a delightful world to be explored. The characters are interesting and engaging and the story is captivating as one mystery gives way to another. However, to a reader who is looking for high action and fast-paced adventure, it might well seem rather dull and needlessly convoluted.

I did find that the climax felt rather rushed after so long a build up. I didn’t feel all the characters were given quite enough time to work through their resolutions and there was one plot point that seemed to get lost in the shuffle at the end, a detail that seemed like it was going to be very important and lead to a dramatic conflict which just sort of fizzled out. However, I did find the epilogue most satisfactory, so I mostly forgive Stephenson for seeming to hurry through. And who knows but that a second reading might find the ending more satisfactory. As a reader I do have the failing of getting so caught up in the plot that I rush and sometimes even skim a bit through slower descriptions just to find out what happens next. Perhaps my unease is partly my own fault for not taking that last bit more slowly and really savoring it?

In any case, the slight dissatisfaction I feel about the end does not prevent me from giving Anathem the highest recommendation. It’s been almost a month since I finished and I still feel the tug of that world and a yearning to find another soul who wants to sit and discuss it at length so that I can more fully understand what it is that I experienced.

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  • > “This book was one of those books that particularly had that effect on me. I don’t want to stop thinking about it”

    A friend from Germany visits us every winter. This year he said “it seems like you were reading those (Anathem, Cryptonomicon) last year, and the year before… how many times have you read them?” My wife immediately answered “Once.”, which is close to the truth… it’s not so much that I ‘re-read’, them, I just never stopped reading them. Both books caused me to red other books, which gave deeper insight into the books themselves, which caused me to read yet more supplementary material… between the two of them, I have read about 20 books that I might never have even *heard* of if not for Stephenson.

    • Oh that’s lovely. I really need to go back to it and to Cryptonomicon. I think I’m about due for a re-read. Would you mind sharing the list of books that you’ve been inspired to read because of Stephenson? I’m very curious now.