March 26, 2005

Serious answer about books

I'm just ashamed that I don't read more. And the stuff I do read is junk -- comics, sci-fi, crime, blogs, etc. This week I'm making another run at Cryptonomicon, which makes my third attempt. It's on the "Nice try, dummy" pile, along with Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest.

Of course, reading anything, even the dumbest blog, is better than watching TV news.

Posted by Jim Treacher at March 26, 2005 11:22 AM

comics, sci-fi, crime, blogs

If you love that stuff, try Tim Dorsey's crime novels filled with more information about Florida than you ever thought there was. Start off with Florida Roadkill. He breaks every rule ever formulated about book-writing, and gets away with it. It's terrific fun. Seriously.

Posted by: RebeccaH at March 26, 2005 12:59 PM

Some of my favorite people are sending this thing to each other, and I keep trying to get into their replies, but it too often reads like elitest posturing. A lot of these personal tastes are just that, the Big Mac for you vs the Whopper for me.

Posted by: Cridland at March 26, 2005 01:09 PM

I have the exact same three books in my "Nice try, dummy" pile. I've made the largest dent in Infinite Jest, but it's been so long that I'd just have to start over. I haven't even opened Cryptonomicon (took me three tries just to type that correctly), and I've pretty much given up all hope with Gravity's Rainbow, which I've started and tossed aside roughly 8 times.

These days I'm sticking to magazines: The Economist, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. Doing so has really pushed up my "feeling smart" meter. US Weekly doesn't count.

Posted by: Missy at March 26, 2005 03:23 PM

I find myself reading more and more nonfiction lately, as well as listening to nonfiction audiobooks while I'm working. Brothers In Arms, the story of the all-black 761st Tank Battalion in WWII, is excellent and recommended.

Also, any David Sedaris stuff is pretty funny, and a fast read.

Posted by: Kevin Parrott at March 26, 2005 03:39 PM

Your reading list sounds literally like a clone of mine. My wife was just bagging on me the other day about it. I took like 20 minutes of intellectuallizing the reading of pulp nonsense as a means of intellectual escapsism before her Yale-educated English-degree brain would accept me as anything more than a big dumbass. ;)

Posted by: JimK at March 26, 2005 05:27 PM

I finally did make it through Crytonomicon, which isn't easy for a math-illiterate like myself. It really does have a lot of funny and interesting stuff in it and is worth reading.

But it seemed like a long, hard slog at times (long and hard is good for some things but definitely not books, in my view), and I don't usually like to work that hard for enjoyment.

I did have to put Quicksilver aside, though. Definitely felt dumb reading that one.

Posted by: anne at March 26, 2005 06:09 PM

I should give "Cryptonomicon" a try. Your experience sounds like mine with "The Satanic Verses." Jeebus, has *anyone* ever finished that book? Honestly? It's beyond me how any Muslim fanatic on the planet stuck with it long enough to be offended.

Posted by: Cynical Nation at March 26, 2005 06:44 PM

if you skip forward about 100 pages, cryptonomicon gets a lot more interesting and easier to read.

Posted by: foo at March 26, 2005 08:27 PM


(I shall now prepares for the hordes of Libertarian Cryptonomicon Fan Club members to come after me. I shall stave them off by tossing copies of TV Guide and The Ladies' Auxiliary Home and Garden Care Guide at them.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at March 27, 2005 12:28 AM

Cryptonomicon was a great thriller. It doesn't pretend to be literature. Gravity's Rainbow is not so good (except for the first sentence). Should I read Infinite Jest?

Posted by: slickdpdx at March 27, 2005 06:34 PM

How much of Great Literature is actually great, and how much is posturing by supposed academics? It's like the "I only listen to indie music" crowd. Screw that; I'm going to listen to Duran Duran because it's fun.

Life is short enough without torturing yourself with crap books. If the junk gives you pleasure, read the junk.

Posted by: Keith at March 27, 2005 07:22 PM

If any of you enjoyed "Gravity's Rainbow", I will gladly sell you my copy of "Mason & Dixon". I can always find something else to prop up the Honda for oil changes.

Posted by: Rob at March 28, 2005 07:26 AM

Surprised everyone is having trouble with Cryptonomicon. I ripped through that one in a couple of weeks. Quicksilver and The Confusion were harder, with several stops and starts before I managed to finish.

My never-to-be-read pile is Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, War and Peace, and Greil Marcus' Mystery Train. That last one isn't very long, and I did read the whole thing if you consider staring at each page before turning to the next one to be reading. I swear I only understood every fourth sentence or so.

Posted by: Matt Moore at March 28, 2005 07:48 AM

Cryptonomicon is my biggest reading heartbreak ever. I read 600 pages and stopped cause I just didn't give a shit anymore. I've never before read that many pages of a book and and stopped cold, nor have I ever read 2/3 of a novel and stopped cold.

And I read everything in print that Stephenson wrote before this, including Zodiac. The man is very intelligent but he needs an editor like my girlfriend needs attention.

Posted by: tachyonshuggy at March 28, 2005 09:59 AM

I loved Infinite Jest. I really really wanted to like Gravity's Rainbow, because it had a cool title, but about eight pages in there were like songs in German or something and I gave up.

Posted by: Jay Nickola at March 28, 2005 12:46 PM

Non-"junk" books are overrated. Or, rather, "junk" is underrated. Stephen King writes about that crap alot, how he feels ashamed to even write what he writes. (Of course, in most cases he should be, but not for that particular reason.)

Posted by: Jason at March 28, 2005 12:49 PM

Speaking of junk, check out the Jack Reacher (not to be confused with Jim Treacher) novels ( It's the same goddamn book every time, but what a great book. Overwhelming odds result in bone-snapping vengeance rained down on the bad guys, courtesy of the quasi-superhuman carefree drifter. What more could you ask for?

Posted by: Hubris at March 28, 2005 12:59 PM

Same with James Lee Burke novels. All the same, but all rewarding. These novels are addictive. Just finished In the Moon of Red Ponies in a day and a half. Gripping plots, compelling prose, fully-developed characters, etc. Great books to take on a long plane ride. Also try Dixie City Jam, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Cadillac Jukebox, and Cimarron Rose. If nothing else, you learn a lot about Cajun country in Louisiana, the Texas Hill Country (where I used to live), and Missoula, Idaho.

Posted by: Michael at March 28, 2005 05:04 PM

Of course, watching any TV news, even the dumbest program,(CNN) is better than listening to school teachers.

Posted by: KIMaster at March 28, 2005 05:31 PM

Interesting, Matt. I was able to speed through Quicksilver (and Snow Crash), but I couldn't get through Cryptonomicon.

Posted by: michele at March 28, 2005 06:25 PM

I loved Cryptonomicon, I've read it a bunch of times. But then, I'm a big nerd. Snow Crash I love, and The Diamond Age which I think is frequently underrated. Quicksilver however was BORING, it was just not worth the effort IMO. He really does need an editor, or a team of editors.

Posted by: Shinobi at March 29, 2005 08:46 AM

Rob: Those of us that liked Gravity's Rainbow already have copies of Mason & Dixon.

Damnit, Treacher. Tell Hogan to get off his ass and make with the new Acid Keg already.

Posted by: Sigivald at March 29, 2005 09:22 AM

Cryptonomicon was like a big bowl of popcorn. Quicksilver moved more slowly, but jeeze, if you can watch something as empty as "Three's Company," you can get through the slowest Stephenson passages.

What I've given up on: "Gravity's Rainbow" (I really wanted to like that one); "The Island of the Day Before" by Eco; "Gormanghast" by Peake (gasp*choke*wheeze).

Posted by: Beryl Gray at March 29, 2005 12:36 PM

Semi-unrelated comment to post, but first visit to your blog (linked from Evangelical Outpost) and LOL'ed at your clever subtitle -- Pinkerton is one of my favorite all-time albums!

Posted by: Patrick at March 29, 2005 12:41 PM

I loved Infinite Jest so much I read it twice, back to back. It's the humor that pushes these big books along. Without humor they're insufferable. Anyone love Confederacy of Dunces? Anyone else think the last 40-50 pages weren't written by Toole?

I've tried Quicksilver, but it just left me uninspired after 150 pages and there's so much good writing out there that I refuse to read a book because it's famous.

War and Peace was really good in some parts, but the historical determinism stuff just frustrated me to no end. I mean, I'll sit through an Ayn Rand lecture in Atlas Shrugged cause I sympathize, but Leo is gonna have to dump the preaching if he wants me to love his characters through to the end. Tolstoy could have learned a lot from Dostoevsky (see Crime and Punishment, The Idiot).

One more really good one that is way underrated is The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy. Absolutlely magnificent! An easy read and a real masterpiece, it's in my top ten of all time.

Posted by: The Apologist at March 29, 2005 02:10 PM

The best way to read Cryptonomicon is to knock back a chapter or two each night before you go to sleep. You can safely skim most of the digressions on cryptology, as well -- they're well-written (the bit about Turing's bicycle is a fairly ingenious way to explain how the ENIGMA machine worked), but all you really need to know is that the main Axis code, Arethusa, was unbroken from WWII to the present day. By the time I got halfway through, I found that I had to force myself to read "only" 60-70 pages before I went to sleep. (I'm finding that Quicksilver is going down fairly well at the same pace, but then I'm a total geek for 16th-18th century European history -- I've read two Simon Schama books and counting, which means I might as well be covered in acne and using a Linux OS. Oh, wait a minute...)

Infinite Jest is an entertaining read, but like everything else David Foster Wallace has ever written, suffers from one of the weakest endings imaginable. It just sort of winds down and stops moving, without really getting anywhere. The first thing I thought when I hit the last page was, "Well, I guess the joke's on me, huh?"

Posted by: Dirk Deppey at March 29, 2005 05:40 PM

"The first thing I thought when I hit the last page was, 'Well, I guess the joke's on me, huh?'"

Yeah, I felt the same way. It's one of the reasons I read it over again right away. Wallace has got a great article on Talk Radio in this month's Atlantic. Did anybody read his Premiere article on "adult film"? I thought it was really good.

Posted by: The Apologist at March 29, 2005 05:51 PM

I'm completely biased as I think Stephenson is a genius and Cryptonomicon will eventually be viewed as a masterpiece of the technology scene of the 1990s.

Having said that, and allowing for disagreement, and acknowledging there are plenty of reasons why Stephenson's writing can piss people off...having said that, anyone who reads the section on the "Mary Fucking Campaign" and doesn't collapse in laughter is simply not a nice person.

Posted by: bll at March 30, 2005 05:59 AM

I ripped through Cryptonomicon in about three days of solid reading. Then I re-read it at a more sane pace. One of my all time faves. Of course it didn't hurt that I was working as a cryptographer for a libertarian data-haven cum think tank at the time (true story).

I really have to buy the Baroque Cycle. Instapundit liked it, and he's never given me a bum steer on a book review.

Posted by: David Gillies at March 30, 2005 09:07 AM

the last book i could not finish was the essential peter parker, the spectacular spider-man vol. 1. did bill mantlo write this stuff before or after the head injury? i would not bother with putting this book on your "nice try, dummy" list.

Posted by: betty at April 1, 2005 01:03 AM