Saturday, June 22, 2013

Little Lesson from a Big Book

Woke up the other day and said, "Today I'm going to finish this book."

Not that one I'm writing. That is coming along, but it took a backseat for a while to the one I was reading. I woke up Thursday and I was on page 948, and still had almost 200 pages to go.

Cryptonomicon is a very large book, more than 1,100 pages. Published in 1999 by Neal Stephenson, it's a lot of things, mostly one of those international, cross-generational stories. It's got World War II codebreaking, it's got the birth of the Internet, it's got love and big-business skullduggery and buried gold and lots, lots more. It's interesting, but at that length I wish it was a bit more interesting. It was enough to keep me going, but never quite enough to drive me into one of those frenzied reading bings that let me read, for example, The Lord of the Rings in a week (eight days, actually.)

The book had been recommended to me by my son Jack, the librarian, who thought it was the kind of thing I'd enjoy. He had himself enjoyed it, but admitted there was a certain smug tone to Stephenson's writing, as if he was very proud of himself for having been around at the start of the Internet and generally being so clever. The author is almost a character along with those in the story, firmly guiding the intrepid reader down some very strange paths.

I learned a lot. Oh lord I learned a lot. Every time it seemed the story was about to shift into high gear we had to stop and take a strange detour. Like the four pages it took to explain a math problem about a bike wheel and chain (which I never did understand. I got it right away, but had no prayer of understanding the actual math, the kind of math that uses symbols instead of numbers.) Pages and pages (I didn't count) complete with sine waves, on "Van Eck phreaking," a system that allows eavesdroppers with a cleverly placed antenna, say embedded in a table top, to watch what's being displayed on your computer screen by analyzing the emissions from your video buffer. And the clever ways hackers can circumvent it. Or the six pages on the Greek pantheon and what was wrong with all those incestuous gods. Or once – I'm not kidding – three pages on the main character's perfection of the ideal system for eating Cap'n Crunch cereal.

There's a character so deeply into number theory that, when he's told that he'll be working for Detachment 2701, immediately says, "Isn't it interesting that 2701 is the product of two prime numbers which are the inverse of each other – 37 and 73?" This causes them to change the unit's number to 2702.

Allan Turing is in the book, and Douglas MacArthur, one of my least favorite figures in American military history, who turns out to be one of the funniest characters.

So shortly before midnight Thursday I finished it, closed the cover and felt, if not quite a sense of accomplishment, at least satisfaction. Gasping for breath, staggering down the final stretch, I had finished the marathon.

And I certainly learned something. Besides the little tidbits of math and computer and legal stuff I absorbed and will now try desperately to forget, I learned this important rule as a writer:

Just because you know something doesn't mean it has to go in the book. I forget who said it, one of those wits from the 1930s, but it's OK to have an unexpressed thought. If it advances the story, yes, by all means include your recipe for scalloped potatoes or a brief history of China patterns. Otherwise, leave it out. The reader will thank you.

And now back to work. I've picked up The Maltese Falcon, one of my favorite books, for my next casual read, but it won't get in the way of finishing Scurvy Dogs!

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