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Fiction and I need to come to an understanding

July 2, 2009

I haven’t read much fiction lately. I make exceptions, obviously. It’s not a conscious thing. But that’s the way it is.

I put a library hold on Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It’s received good reviews, won awards, and been loosely recommended by friends and acquaintances. It’s not the type of book I usually choose, but I thought I’d give it a chance.

I picked it up yesterday, and I have to admit I’m intimidated. It’s 960 pages. It opens with a “Note to the reader,” including a historical timeline, and it closes with a glossary and an appendix. At 12 pages in, I have already been bombarded with 20 new words, and from what I understand, the historical context is even more difficult.

It reminds me of this XKCD:

Now that I’m looking at it, the alt-text for the original comic mentions Anathem by name. Eek.

As a journalist, I don’t like things that distract from the message. Get to the point. Cut out anything non-essential.

But fiction really isn’t like that. The narrative is “the point.” Even if there’s an overlying sociopolitical message, it’s still about the story, the setting, the characters.

I think I have a misconception about fiction, and that’s that it should be easy. “Easy” might not be the right word, but it’s close. I mostly read fiction for fun, to take a break, to solidify concepts, maybe to provide a new perspective on something — but not usually to cram my head full of new information.

I think the worst part is when I don’t feel like it’s useful information. Learning the vocabulary and history of Orth is never going to be helpful in my everyday life (unless it’s helping me form a connection with a Neal Stephenson fan). It feels wasteful. The time and brainspace I’m using to understand this speculative world could be used understanding the world I’m actually living in.

On the other hand, it’s obvious that reading this kind of book is going to make me think in different ways, and stretching my mind in any way is usually something I see as a good thing.

I’m going to read this beast. I might even end up liking it. We’ll see.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mel Umbarger permalink
    July 2, 2009 5:27 pm

    I don’t mind authors making up words if I can easily tell what they mean in context. Scott Westerfeld does it as well as anyone I’ve seen — he never needs to define them, but you can tell almost instantly what he is talking about. I read a few reviews of Anathem after you mentioned it, and while that one doesn’t interest precisely because I don’t have patience with learning new vocabularies just to read a book, there are two of his books I have loosely placed on my TBR list. I’ll probably skim through them at the bookstore, though, before buying.

  2. Lyn permalink
    July 2, 2009 7:01 pm

    I have the same problem. I haven’t read recent fiction in years. My solution has been to read classic fiction. Have you read War and Peace orThe Brothers Karamazov? It’s good fiction for fact addicts.

  3. Natalie DeBruin permalink*
    July 2, 2009 8:35 pm

    Mel — I definitely agree about the contextual neologisms. I’ve read a few of Westerfield’s books, and I’ve enjoyed them, even though I occasionally find him to be kind of preachy.

    Lyn — You know, I haven’t read either of those, which is a shame. Thanks for the recommendations!


  1. Anathem: Brilliance, with sides of sexism and disappointment « Natalie DeBruin

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