Friday, May 06, 2011

Open Letter to Neal Stephenson

Dear Mr. Stephenson,

I am an avid reader and lover of books. Like many bibliophiles, when asked "What's your favorite book," I squint my eyes, sigh, gesture ineffectually, and attempt to explain how books are like clouds or children or sexual experiences and that one can never really pick an all-time favorite. But the truth is, I have tiers of favorite books.

Books that I have loved: too numerous to list.

Books that have influenced my mental and emotional and imaginative growth: These are listable, but really, is a fan letter the place for that? What do you care? Let's give it a ballpark and say there are about 50.

Books that have shifted my mental landscape irretrievably, to which I return again and again and still reap the rewards of reading: A year ago, there were two. Now there are three: The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and your book Anathem.

I haven't read all of your works, or even your most famous books. I'm currently reading the Baroque Trilogy. I'm currently writing a paper on The Diamond Age. And I've read Anathem twice. And each book is so awesomely different.

I love Terry Pratchett, and I could never do what he does. But you read a Terry Pratchett book, and you know you're reading a Terry Pratchett book. There's a pattern, a rhythm to the jokes and images and plots that, even if you can't predict it ahead of time, when you look back, you say, Yes. That fits with all the other stuff I've read by him. But your books don't read this way. They share themes, of course, but experiencing each one is like moving to a new country or a new planet. Toto, we're not on Discworld anymore!

Have you ever played a game with yourself, trying to make yourself uncomfortable but not terrified? Maybe you drive around, trying to lose yourself on unfamiliar streets, hoping that you'll still be able to find the way home. Maybe you're in the ocean and you swim out past where you can touch the bottom. Your heart beats, you're thrilled and alive and extremely uncomfortable. The thing about your writing is that each book pushes my mind into terra nonfirma and makes me sit there a while. The land does not eventually become solid for me. The streets are too strange; the water is too deep. I wouldn't say, even after writing a paper on The Diamond Age, that I totally get what the book is trying to do. But my mind becomes more brave each time I play the game.

Thank you for sharing all of this with all of us.

Exhilaratedly yours,

A Fan

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