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Wednesday, June 30   11:56 PM


Finished reading Cryptonomicon, at 1152 pages probably the most massive book I've read since giving up on Robert Jordan's unending Wheel of Time series.

Our teachers at Lowell Elementary — the public grade school where my classmates and I were first sequestered into an anticipatory elite — rewarded the students who read the most pages each month. The top readers in the class got to go out for ice cream, or something, with the teacher. The public library had a similar program during the summer. And then there was the inescapable presence of Book-It, which had partnered with Pizza Hut to give promising students ludicrously undersized pizzas.

Embarrassingly, this reward system (and my inevitable competition with Graham, a Hardy Boys fan) precipitated my long addiction to Boxcar Children books, which I continued to read long after they'd become tedious and easy — just to bolster my page count.

But overall the effects were positive. Because the pages didn't count until you finished the book, I became bullheaded when it comes to reading, refusing to give up on any even remotely promising work of fiction. If I remember correctly, the only novels I've ever quit reading halfway through are Gump and Co. and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

And whenever I finish an especially long book, I feel absurdly satisfied. Part of me still expects some sort of reward for reading so many pages.

That's how I felt after reading Cryptonomicon. Stephenson takes advantage of his space, briefing the reader on whatever interests his narrator and even going so far as to include graphs and charts to illuminate important concepts.

Some guy on the back cover calls this book a mixture of Tom Clancy, [cyberpunk legend] William Gibson, and [droning writer of historical fiction] James Michener. And he's prettymuch right.

I had a reason for blogging this instead of posting the guts as an Amazon.com review. There was a line about fifty pages before the end of the book that floored me. It wasn't a plot twist of any kind, it wasn't a great joke. Just a mundane phrase that had built up a huge store of meaning.

Stephenson spends a thousand pages (imagine that) scribble scribble scribbling and letting everything (or almost everything) come through subtly. And it pays off.

This is different from the proverbial "gun on the wall" rule that every aspiring writer gets beaten into him at some point. Carefully laying out all your metaphors in the first act, like a French movie or any given NYT bestselling author, then repeating them throughout the book (and maybe working in a bunch of them at the end) is just good policy.

Stephenson does it; most good writers do it.

But Joyce, Twain, and (in his only lightweight way) Stephenson went further. They cultivated the words themselves, gave them loaded meanings — not by having some longwinded characters define them, but by simply using the words and noticing how they're used.

Stephenson has carefully picked which words to use where (I've never had to run to the dictionary so many times, in fact. "Epiphyte"? "Gnomon"?) and towards the end of a long book, the built-up connotations (varying by context and by speaker) are delicious.

So this isn't about Stephenson but about me. I've tried to write obliquely (too obliquely, says my Fiction Writing class) and I think I'll keep trying. I've learned that subtlety can (still) jibe with an apparently straightforward storytelling method. And that's exciting.

Well, not that I can think of anything to write about. I just had a dream about aliens and piranha muskies. I wish I could remember it; my summer page total stands steady at zero.

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