More on ideas and literature

Alan Jacobs concludes his review of Neal Stephenson‘s latest novel Anathem with this:

But this is the problem with all of Stephenson’s books of the past decade, starting with Cryptonomicon (1999): He has more energy than his readers are likely to have.

But what a wonderful problem! Stephenson is immensely and delightedly curious about an astonishingly wide range of ideas and disciplines — from cryptography to mechanical computers and clocks to steam engines to calculus and geometry to martial arts to quantum-theoretical accounts of infinite possible worlds — and not many readers are likely to be able to catch up with it all. But even for those who fall behind there is, or should be, admiration for Stephenson’s sheer love of ideas, and his belief that fiction can be a powerful means for communicating those ideas and infecting others with a love of them — a love of them and a conviction that they matter, that, as another long-winded novelist once said, ideas have consequences.

Stephenson doesn’t get noticed by many of our best critics — it’s simply impossible to imagine a James Wood essay about Stephenson (though ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished). There will always be someone to step up and decry Stephenson’s interests as “adolescent,” simply because many adolescents (especially socially awkward male ones) are fascinated by the things that fascinate Stephenson. But then, the most “literary” of novels tend to be occupied with teasing out every implication, however subtle and even vaporous, of human relationships, and that’s an adolescent concern too, isn’t it? — just one that occupies a different subset of teenagers.

“Adolescent” is a sneer, not a critique. The important questions are these: Does Stephenson make his ideas live? Does he make us want to care about then as he does? Do those ideas matter — should they matter — to thoughtful people? Yes; yes; yes. Anathem is going to sell a hell of a lot of copies, but it’s also an important and exciting book, and deserves more serious reflection from serious people than it is ever likely to get.

Besides the mention of James Wood, Jacobs’ comments on ideas and literature seem relevant to the post below.

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Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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