On a rainy fall day, there is almost nothing better than curling up with a good book in front of the fireplace. For me, this fall, the book has been Reamde by Neil Stephenson. But, now it is a bright sunny day and the book still has me in its clutches. To quote from the New York times book review:
Let us say that novelists are like unannounced visitors. While Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow pound manfully on the door, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith knock politely, little preparing you for the emotional ferociousness with which they plan on making themselves at home. Neal Stephenson, on the other hand, shows up smelling vaguely of weed, with a bunch of suitcases. Maybe he can crash for a couple of days? Two weeks later he is still there. And you cannot get rid of him. Not because he is unpleasant but because he is so interesting.
This is the kind of book that it is easy to get lost in, easy to be transported to a new place in . The world on the printed page becomes more real than the real world which fades to being only a distraction from the book. Lord of the Rings was like that. I think that I read Lord of the Rings about three times over a six year period. I knew I was hooked when I would try to catch a few paragraphs while stopped at traffic lights. Another, for me, was Shogun by James Clavell.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer – for some strange reason – was one of those books and it started me on a World War II binge.
Not that Stephenson always makes it easy: his characters usually have goofy names that are hard to pronounce like Richard Forthrast, they are sort of improbable, and the first hundred pages are setup. But then it takes off, much like Shogun, in an episodic blast. Each event leads to another with consequences that seems both improbable and, somehow, inevitable. Along the way, while we are running at full speed, Stephenson – running alongside and whispering in our ear – explains the world. For example, a British handler explains to a spy how the American counter-terrorist system works:
The American national security apparatus is very large and unfathomably complex…. It has many departments and subunits that, one supposes, would not survive a top-to-bottom overhaul. This feeds on itself as individual actors, despairing of ever being able to make sense of it all, create their own little ad hoc bits that become institutionalized as money flows toward them. Those who are good at playing the political game are drawn inward to Washington. Those who are not end up sitting in hotel lobbies in places like Manila, waiting for people like you.
How can a nice, sunny, fall, day compete with that?