Once upon a time, a bunch of writers and editors who found themselves working quite by accident for newspapers in a small town in Pennsylvania decided to have a party. A 20-something native of the town found himself among them, and as he listened to the conversation, about the news of the day, and books, and movies, and politics, and culture, his face grew more and more pinched, until finally he confided in the woman who had invited him, "Your friends sure do know a lot of words." Wherever he is now, I am sure he knows a few more words, but sometimes I recognize the sentiment. Most recently I experienced a similar befuddlement after slogging through 114 pages of the book I am supposedly reading, "Anathem," by the uber-nerd Neal Stephenson.
The last time I had to read with a dictionary this close to me was when I made my way through "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace, may he rest in peace. Wallace never misused a word, though -- and I am not sure I can say that for Neal Stephenson -- nor did he often coin them, though he rescued many from obscurity and put them to new use.
Stephenson's work is, at least on the surface, a work of science fiction, set in an alternate world, where words do not quite mean what they mean to us, and where many words have been invented. Now, I remember loving Frank Herbert's "Dune," and I learned to write in Elvish during my teenage "Lord of the Rings" period (no tattoos, though). Heck, I read the "Silmarillion"! And the ever-more baroque works of Pynchon. Maybe I just don't have the patience for this sort of thing anymore.
Here are some examples from my exasperated notes:
extramuros chronochasm oculus analemma aut avout chancel concent fraa nave orrery praxis sline surr theoric
...and the book's title, which I misread as "anthem" for quite a while (a word that it echoes, and of course the title of a popular book by the awful hack Ayn Rand, spiritual adviser to fed chairman Alan Greenspan, which is neither here nor there, except when I look at my dwindling portfolio. I always knew her claptrap was bad news).
Now, it helps that Stephenson's book has a glossary, something I only noticed after resorting to the Web, where the Anathem Wikia proved to be of some help. And, admittedly, I am starting to get into a groove, as fans of the books claims will happen after the first 100 pages or so. We shall see. I am willing to give him a chance, since I was a fan of his early works, though I was unable to wade through his mammoth trilogy about the history of physics, or whatever it was about. (My friend Andy says I should give it another chance.)
Stephenson doesn't make it easy. Many of the chapters of "Anathem" are preceded by helpful dictionary entries, along the lines of this:
Provener -- The primary daily aut of a concent, Provener is celebrated by the avout just before the mid-day meal. Main features are a lesson, recapitulating some theoric achievement in history, and the winding of the Great Clock.
It's enough to make you sit down on an analemma and weep.
At least one coinage appears to need no explanation: bulshytte. Stephenson -- eschewing the footnote-endnote-happy style of DFW -- might argue that the term is slightly different from our earthbound one. He promises to discuss more about the ideas that inspired the book at his Web site. I haven't clicked there yet. I'm still working on the book.
This could take a while. (Note: I did eventually finish it and wrote a longer post.)