I know what I’m doing this summer.

Re-reading Infinite Jest, footnotes and experimental film references and bizarre medically-nomenclatured anthropoid malformations and all. Via kottke, natch.*

*Actually, I’m already well into the re-read — I’d decided to do it following DFW’s tragic death last fall, and hadn’t actually started till a couple weeks ago. But a head start probably won’t hurt.

Stephenson on AV Club

The Onion’s A.V. Club interviews author Neal Stephenson in the wake of his new novel Anathem, which I have, coincidentally, just finished reading. Anathem isn’t quite as good as Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (and I have some specific quibbles with some of the biology in it), but it’s a fine book about a well-build imaginary world. Stephenson has a good eye for detail, and a great talent for weaving big ideas into narrative. He also, apparently, uses a chalkboard in the writing process.

Sarah Vowell on McSweeney’s

Catching up with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, I see that they have a fresh essay by Sarah Vowell, written as the forward to Nick Hornby’s latest book. It is an extended complaint about all the books we don’t have time to read, and it is, of course, excellent. One highlight is a brief detour into the question of what the World Cup is, and whether it might be as compelling as a certain other televisual time-suck:

In that column, collected herein, [Hornby] confesses that he didn’t read a book at all because something called “the World Cup” was on TV. I’m not entirely sure what that is, as I do not live in the world; I live in the United States. But from what I can tell, he didn’t crack a book because this World Cup thing was as all-consuming a free-time eater-upper as the DVDs of the first three seasons of Battlestar Galactica were to me. Not that I’m convinced that this Ukraine v. Tunisia rivalry he describes has the depth of feeling and moral ambiguity so dramatically summoned by the space humans’ ongoing war with the Cylons the humans themselves created, but then again what does?

Wired on Neal Stephenson: stop and smell the world-building

This month’s issue of Wired has a great profile of author Neal Stephenson, whose work I’ve just discovered this summer. Stephenson is a geek’s geek – his writing is detail-oriented without just piling on the facts, and his delight in both big ideas and puzzle-solving is palpable. He makes you want to cheer for rationalism.

His next novel, Anathem, is due out 9 September.

Airplane reading

Whilst on vacation, (among other things) I’m working on Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I’m not done yet, but I’m prepared to give a very positive review. Cryptonomicon doesn’t achieve the same transcendently nerdy joy at the details of history and science that characterize Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, but it comes close. And in some regards it’s better – parts of Cryptonomicon recall Douglas Adams’s unique talent for screwing with the reader’s perspective. Like this introductory passage:

Let’s set the existence-of-God issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored. Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregationalist preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. …

As nightmarishly lethal, memetically programmed death-machines went, these were the nicest you could ever hope to meet.

There’s also a wonderful bit where Stephenson explains a mathematical concept using Alan Turing’s malfunctioning bicycle as a metaphor. Clearly targeted squarely at those of us who never missed “Square One TV” when it was on the air. Which would include me.

I have no idea what they’re talking about

Today’s New York Times Books section has a hand-wringing piece about the effect of Internet use on reading habits. I think the main point is that reading online shortens and fragments your attention span, but I never did finish the piece because I got distracted reading a New Yorker article on medical marijuana and a Times Magazine piece about Afghanistan while I set up an analysis on the UI supercomputing cluster and checked Facebook. And blogged about it.

(Meanwhile, I’m almost finished with the third volume of Neal Stephenson’s excellent, and lengthy, Baroque cycle, printed on good old dead trees.)

The Origin: worth your time

The New York Time’s science columnist Olivia Judson argues that, nearly 150 years after the publication of its first edition, The Origin of Species is well worth reading, even (or especially) for scientists. She rattles off the usual reasons that biologists avoid Darwin’s magnum opus — page after page of natural history observations, occasionally unreadable Victorian prose — but then gets down to the point:

[Darwin] has a sophisticated view of how natural selection works, and the circumstances that make it powerful; indeed, his descriptions of the forces of nature — starvation, predation, competition and disease, to name a few — are as good as, or better than, those in most textbooks today. He appreciates that the biggest problems that most living beings face come not from features of the physical environment, such as climate, but from other organisms, whether of the same species or a different one. And in our current age of specialization, where deep knowledge of an animal or a plant often comes at the cost of broad knowledge of other members of the tree of life, it is deeply refreshing to come across writing that is so much about all of nature.

I read the Origin my first year of grad school, and it was hard going in parts. But elsewhere, it was indeed a great read.