Tag Archives: neal stephenson

Review: Lexicon

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t realize the “thriller about words” could be a genre, but I’m definitely on board. While most people recommend and remember Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” because of the cyber-punk and cyberspace elements, that book was really more about words and the idea of words as being able to have this viral programming effect on humans. For the nerd in your life who got into THAT aspect of “Snow Crash,” you’ll definitely want to recommend “Lexicon.”

It’s not a perfect book, but there’s a lot to love here. The author does a very clever bit of work with a dual narrative that moves around in time, but never actually states the time/date or any sort of “Then/Now” chapter notation. It’s up to you to figure out how the narrative pieces together, which you can do from context and feels incredibly rewarding as a result. I like it when books and authors treat their readers as very clever and able to figure things out; this is something else that author Max Barry and Neal Stephenson have in common and I approve.

The book is at its absolute best as it explores its ideas; what is a word, really? How much power do they have, in the literal sense of being able to reprogram human cognition. You’ll find yourself thinking about it long after you put the book down, which for me is always a plus; see the previous paragraph about authors and reader cleverness.

Where this book wanders away from being perfect is when it decides to be a thriller. Simply put, there are a few thriller tropes that really grate. We never really find out WHY the poets (the main organization) are amassing all of this power or why the main antagonist makes any of the choices that he/she (keeping it ambiguous to avoid spoilers) makes. We’re left to assume and thus the overarching plot has a bit of an “evil for the sake of evil” mastermind bit going on that’s at odds with how clever the rest of the storytelling is.

Regardless, this is a book that I can highly recommend, especially for people who like their fiction to feel as smart as they are.

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The Trouble With Long Books

I read for a lot of reasons. One of the stranger reasons I read is because of how much I like entering my reading into my Goodreads profile. You enter the books you’ve read, when you’ve read them, give them a rating and a review (if you want). Basic social media stuff, but that’s now why I love it; I love it because of what Goodreads does with all that data after you enter it.

I love how the data get arrayed out into neat bars and stats based on how many books you’ve read in a year, how many pages, when you’ve read the book versus when it was published, and what the longest book was that you read for that year. Basically, these are stats for a nerd, the way a baseball player might be concerned with improving his batting average or a runner might want to improve her best times. Suddenly, I want to read so I can fill my bars and I want to read a lot, all the time, even if I don’t really feel like it because I have to keep filling those bars. This is also the neurotic motivation I have for gathering Achievements for my Xbox Live gamertag, incidentally.

And hey, as long as it all motivates one to read more books, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that when you set a reading goal for the year, and if you really focus on hitting it, you very quickly turn into a mercenary about what you’re reading. Sure, you could be reading Infinite Jest right now (which I am) and it could strike you was one of the best books ever written (which, thus far, it does) but it still only counts for one book. It’s over a thousand pages long yet it only moves my “books read” bar up by one tick. It’s over a thousand goddamn pages. I could read three average novels in the same time period!

There was one month (May 2013, according to Goodreads) where I did nothing but read Shogun by James Clavell for almost the entire month! And sure, it was one of the finest books I’ve ever read in my life and absolutely compelling, but an entire month was spent on one book! What about my bars? I have bars to fill.

Sure, there’s the fact that the graph also tracks the longest book that you’ve read, but that also has a flaw: what’s the point of reading a thousand page book if you’ve already got a 1100 pager on that graph? I have Neal Stephenson’s Anathem sitting patiently in my “to read” stack, but what’s the point? That shit only clocks in at a mere 937 pages, which makes it too long for me to stay on track with my monthly book goal, but too short to make “longest book of the year that I read.”

So, what, I’m left with the joy of reading? Maybe I want to marvel at a masterpiece of speculative fiction from a writer who cosistently delivers interesting and intelligent work that always impresses me? Maybe I just want to read something great for the joy of reading?

Fuck that, man. I got bars that need fillin’.

I Still Prefer Books (And Science Agrees With Me)

There’s probably something odd in blogging about the superiority of the physical page as compared to the digital screen. I don’t particularly love eBooks; as I have enumerated before, I don’t own a tablet or eReader of any sort so my experience is limited to reading on my smartphone. And that’s not terribly enjoyable.

Overall, I’d estimate that out of the 125 books I read last year, about 100 of them were physical, 20 were audio, and the remaining five were electronic text.

Fortunately for me, science suggests that from a neurological perspective, this is the preferred way to read:

The debate between paper books and e-readers has been vicious since the first Kindle came out in 2007 . . . But now science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of paper books . . . A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

My own experiences support this. I recently finished Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and I read it entirely on my smartphone. I noticed one particular advantage: my book was always in my pocket which otherwise wouldn’t be possible given that Cryptonomicon, like almost everything Stephenson writes, is around 1,000 pages. I was able to read pretty much everywhere I went which really helped rack up some extra reading time throughout the day.

But I can tell that I didn’t absorb it as fully as if I’d been reading a physical version. It’s easier to skim on a screen. You scroll through the text and “psuedo-read” what’s there, seeing without comprehending.

As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. A 2006 study found that people read on screens in an “F” pattern, reading the entire top line but then only scanning through the text along the left side of the page. This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.

I noticed the “F pattern” creep into my reading experience. It certainly didn’t help my comprehension, even if it did improve the speed at which I plowed through the book (but since I’m reading for my own pleasure, what’s the point of going so quickly that you don’t realize what you’re doing?)

I also noticed that the “F pattern” effect began to recede as soon as I returned to a physical book. My focus was much sharper.

I have another mammoth Stephenson tome sitting in my “to-read” pile (Anathem, if you’re curious) and it will be interesting to see how the experience compares; two very long works by the same author on the different formats.

Textual Preferences

I don’t own an e-reader but I do indulge in reading e-books on my smartphone from time to time. I use the word indulge which might suggest that ebooks are a treat that I allow myself from time to time but that isn’t quite the case. Usually, I’ll choose an e-book when the printed copy isn’t available. Or I need something immediately such as during travel.

Otherwise, reading on my smartphone is an uncomfortable experience. The phone’s screen is too cramped and claustrophobic. My phone is three years old, so prolonged use of any sort wears out the battery too quickly.

It creates a tricky situation. I don’t like reading ebooks enough to invest in a dedicated ereader but reading on my phone is too uncomfortable to induce me to read more ebooks, so why should I spend money on a reader?

However, there is one case when I feel the e-book has a clear advantage, even on an uncomfortable platform like a smartphone: when one is reading a doorstopper.

The current doorstopper in my reading queue is Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. I tried reading a few years ago but I couldn’t get into the book. I knew that it wasn’t a bad book. It just wasn’t the right time or place or maybe I wasn’t in the right mental state for it. I always knew that I’d come back to it someday and so, a few years later, here I am.

I’m trying it as an e-book so that I don’t have to heft around a massive slab of book which is a bonus when you’re a motorcycle rider and your reading material needs to fit easily into one’s jacket pocket.

Since this is my first really deep delve into reading an e-book, I’m learning some of the quirks. One of which is that I can control the color of the text on the screen. I can choose to have black text on a white background (like this blog page) or I can have the inverse; white text on a black background.

I’ve tried it both ways for about one hundred pages now and I’m uncertain. My general feeling is that the white-text-on-black would probably be better for my battery life but which one is better for my eyes?

A few Google searches suggest that black-text-on-white is more readable which would reduce eyestrain, but there are also countless articles about computer-related eyestrain that make me suspicious of the black-text-on-white paradigm. Might the inverse option be better for the eyes? I am uncertain and there doesn’t seem to be much discussion on this pressing topic to provide me with more information.