How I finally managed to finish reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is one of those books that I had to start reading several times before I figured out how to finish it. If you also feel compelled to read Anathem, but are having trouble getting through it, here's my spoiler-free guide to how to finish Anathem. (And yes, in my opinion, the payoff at the end actually is worth it.)

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

By Neal Stephenson
Published by William Morrow, 2008
Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009)

Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2009)
Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee (2009)
British Science Fiction Association Award Nominee for Best Novel (2008)
John W. Campbell Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009,
Endeavour Award Nominee (2009)

Book Summary: Anathem

“Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside “saecular” world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

“Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent’s gates—at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious “extras” in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was “collected.” But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

“Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros—a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can oppose—as, one by one, Erasmas and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmas finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world—as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet . . . and beyond.”

From the official book description on Goodreads

Anathem doesn’t need a book review from me. So why write one?

Judging by the reviews on Goodreads and the sheer number of awards Anathem won in 2009, most people who read Anathem love it. When I wrote this post, Anathem had racked up 54,538 reviews with an average rating of 4.18 stars

I am not writing this post for any of those people. 

This post is for all those people out there who, like me, feel compelled to read Anathem for some reason or another, but just can’t quite make their way through it.

Anathem is one of those books that I had to start reading several times before I figured out how to finish it. Here’s what I learned. 

Lesson #1: Don’t read Anathem for plot. 

The first time I tried reading Anathem back in 2009, I tried reading it for plot. The concept behind this story really appeals to me – the world is threatened and the only people who can possibly save it are these perpetual grad student/monk types (known as avouts) who are cloistered away from society with only a bolt, a cord, and a sphere to their names. Can they reason their planet’s way out of utter apocalypse?

Frankly, I still think that description sounds amazing.

But now I see the flaw in reading a book like that for plot.

Those avouts aren’t acting their way out of utter apocalypse, they are reasoning their way out of it.

When I first tried reading Anathem, I was dealing with a very curious toddler who spoke mostly in questions. After fielding questions from her all day, I had very little stamina left for books that relied on their characters having dialogues that consisted mostly of them asking each other questions.

I needed to be spending my time with characters like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who frankly just doesn’t talk that much. Any thinking that might occur rarely disrupts the action for more than a paragraph or two.

Anathem is far more contemplative. Its characters spend much more time talking and debating about maybe doing things than they spend actually doing things. In fact, you could argue that the action in Anathem rarely disrupts the philosophizing for more than a page or two.

I wasn’t in a place to read that back then, so I put it aside, promising myself to read it someday.

Lesson #2: Don’t read Anathem for character.

I came upon Anathem in an airport book store at some point in 2014 and, because I seem oddly compelled to read this book, bought myself a copy to read on the plane. This time I told myself, I wouldn’t read for plot, but rather character. All that philosophizing had to reveal character, right?

That’s when I realized that all of those philosophizing characters were being revealed through one guy’s mind: Erasmus. A 19-year-old know-something who may be smarter than he appears, but certainly isn’t the most reliable judge of character in the world. Also, because everything is filtered through him, all of the characters had a sort of stereotyped feel to them. He expects his fellow avouts to follow certain behavioral patterns and for the most part they do.

I read diligently for the duration of that plane flight, but I quickly realized that reading Anathem for character wasn’t going to be very interesting for very long. It was the wrong approach. Unfortunately for Anathem, I was in a phase when I was very interested in how authors portray character, so I put it aside in favor of Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley mystery series. Now there’s an author worth reading for character.

Lesson #3: It helps to think of Anathem as a commentary on academic life.

Earlier this year, I read The Rise and Fall of DODO by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. I loved it. Turns out I adore novels with lots of time travel and smidge of philosophy. And that made me want to read more work by both Stephenson and Galland. Since I already owned Anathem, I decided to start with it.

You know what happened next: I read the back copy, fell in love with the premise all over again, and dove in. Only to encounter the same problems when it came to reading for plot and character. I paused midway through Part Two and started reading Anathem’s reviews to see if I could pick up any tips on how to enjoy this book.

That’s when I discovered Thiago Marzagao’s blog post: “5 reasons why academics should read Anathem.” In it Marzagao talks about all the reasons academics should feel right at home on Arbre.

I am not an academic, but there are a shocking number of them in my extended family. Thinking of Anathem as a way to spy into their lives propelled me most of the way to Part Three.

Lesson #4: If reading the book isn’t working for you, try listening to it instead.

The real game changer for me, though, was stumbling across a reviewer who frankly admitted that they found Anathem to be nearly impossible to read, but a great book to listen to. Earlier this year, I discovered that I could check out audiobooks from the library on my iPhone using Libby, so I trundled over to my local library to see if they had Anathem on audiobook.

They did. And shockingly, it was available (most of the time I have to wait on the audiobooks), so I checked it out and snuggled in to listen.

Frankly it was still a bit of a struggle at times — that Fra Orolo does love to dialogue. But being able to get up and do other things while listening to the book (such as housework, laundry, knitting, etc.) helped a lot. Still, it took me six weeks to listen to all 32 hours of the book. 

Lesson #5: It really helps to know how much more time you will need to invest in reading (or listening) to Anathem.

I used to be a person who finished every book I started. About ten years ago, my husband convinced me that given the number of books in the world and my own mortality, it didn’t make any sense at all to sink my rapidly dwindling supply of time into books that I wasn’t enjoying. So I began abandoning books that hadn’t hooked me in their first 50 – 100 pages.

Yes, I still felt guilt. But those periods of guilt only lasted as long as it took me to find my next book.

Most of the time, I leave those unfinished books behind and never think about them again. But Anathem is different. I feel compelled to read it, for reasons I don’t completely understand. About ten hours into the audiobook, I realized that I still wasn’t very invested in the story, and toyed with the idea of simply setting Anathem aside in favor of something else.

At this point, I paused the audiobook and did a little math.

  • On my first attempt to read Anathem, I made it most of the way through Parts One and Two. Let’s say I spent three hours reading and one hour agonizing over whether or not to finish: 4 hours 
  • On my second attempt to read Anathem, I read only for the duration of a plane flight, and felt very little guilt about setting it aside. Let’s call that 2 hours.
  • So far, on my third attempt to read Anathem, I had read Parts One and Two in paperback, listened to Parts Three and Four on audiobook, and spent another hour reading reviews trying to decide whether or not to finish. That’s roughly three hours of reading, six hours of listening, and one hour of review hunting. Let’s call it 10 hours. 

The audiobook itself was only 32 hours long. I had paused at hour 10, so there were only 22 hours left.

According to my rough calculations, I had already invested at least 16 hours reading Anathem. Based on past performance, it seemed reasonable to assume that if I didn’t finish it this time, I would simply pick it up in a couple of years and start the whole process over again. I wouldn’t have to do that too many more times to have spent more time on failed attempts to read Anathem than there were hours left in the audiobook.

Clearly it was more time-efficient in the long run to simply finish the audiobook now.

So I kept listening.

Lesson #6: The further you go, the easier Anathem gets to read.

At some point Stephenson apparently decided to take pity on hapless readers like me, because in Part Three he spends a little bit of time explaining how the events of Parts One and Two tie together. 

That gave me hope. And sure enough, every once in a while, he takes a moment to explain why some of the past dialogues that felt fairly random at the time, such as the one about the nerve-gas-farting pink dragon in Part 4, actually matter.  This sort of thing starts to happen more frequently the further you get along in the book.

Amazingly, most of the apparently random philosophizing in the first 800 pages ends up being relevant to the events in the last 100 pages. I don’t really understand how Neal Stephenson managed to do that, but he does.

If I wanted to write philosophical science fiction, I would read this book again in a heartbeat (now that I know the payoff actually is worth it), just to see how he does it.

Fortunately, I mostly write about fostering curiosity these days. So I don’t have to figure out how Stephenson did it.

Or do I?

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