Thursday, March 22, 2007

BOOKS: Quicksilver

I have so many, many things I should be doing. Much work to be accomplished. And instead of any of that, what did I accomplish instead?

I finished Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver.

For those of you who've been reading this blog for a while, you know that that is indeed quite the accomplishment for me. I have been trying to read that book for the entire existence of this blog. Check out this post from July, 2004, in which I mention having checked out Quicksilver from the library. That's coming up on three years, yo. (Incidentally, you can see from that entry I've been adding labels to my posts, working from the beginning. I haven't gotten very far yet, but eventually, you will be able to see exactly how many times I've mentioned Who's Next, or Robocop. Won't that be fun?)

I predicted I wouldn't be able to finish the book before it was due back, and I was right. Later, I bought the paperback, started reading again from the beginning, and eventually put it down to read something else. Then I picked it up again, then quit again. Many times. Intermittently, I reported on my progress here; invariably, it was "not much." Then, finally, in December of last year, I decided I would get through that book if it was the last thing I ever did. Since I'm writing this entry right now, you can see it was not the last thing I ever did, which frankly is a bit of a relief to me.

Yep, I've devoted the majority of my reading time to Quicksilver for the last three months. Even for a tremendously deep and intricate, 900+ page book, that's a long while. The explanation is, my reading time isn't what it used to be. I only find the time, or patience, to read a few pages every day -- sometimes not even every day. Sometimes not even every week. So I got through Quicksilver by tiny bits and pieces. But I finished it! I finally, finally finished it.

And what did I think of it? It is -- and I don't think I'm overstating it -- a work of genius. Which is impressive, since so was Stephenson's previous book, Cryptonomicon (of which, in some ways, Quicksilver is a prequel). Dude's smart.

Quicksilver is about the scientific advances of Isaac Netwon, and his various contemporaries -- including their controversies, their failures, and their squabbles and conflicts. But it's also about the political intrigue of the era, from Charles I and Oliver Cromwell to Louis XIV and William III of Orange. And it's about religion and religious persecution and their effects on politics. And it's about economics, and minting, and class, and fashion, and book cataloguing, and alchemy, and banking, and slavery, and art, and the military, and mining, and the mercantile system, and cartography, and cryptography, and... oh, everything. All of which Stephenson manages to make not merely comprehensible or palatable, but fully appreciable and enthralling. And... it's all packed with thrilling action, and bawdy humor, and fully-fleshed characters, both real and fictitious, about whom you come to care immensely.

Quicksilver is one of the best books I've ever read. Despite my glee at conquering it, I'm sad it's over. The good news: there are two more books to go. So mark it: today, March 22, 2007, is the day I read the first page of Book 2 of Stephenson's "The Baroque Cycle," The Confusion. Let's hope this doesn't take another three years.

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