Saturday, August 06, 2005

I just finished my four-week-long grappling match with Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, a monster of a tome. It's 916 pages, but makes up for it by being a slow read. Still, I'm pretty much immediately seeking out the next two books in the trilogy, so don't take the slowness the wrong way. It's just dense, that's all.

It's customary to say what a book is about when you describe reading it. So here goes--Quicksilver is about: Isaac Newton, the Tower of London, the Glorious Revolution, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, silver mining, the court of Louis XIV at Versailles and his hemorrhoids, Robert Hooke, the Siege of Vienna, the Siege of Maestricht, fisting, chakras, Amsterdam stock markets, Christaan Huygens, gallstones, Barbary pirates, Massachusetts pirates, the taking of Batavia, the slave trade, Gottfried Liebniz, royal bastards (i.e. jerks), royal bastards (i.e. illegitimate children of noblemen), the Black Death, the burning of London, Oliver Cromwell, Charleses I and II, Jameses I and II, the Royal Society, the King of the Vagabonds, the ascendancy and fellating of William of Orange, binary numbers, clockmaking, and alchemy.

I'm sure I've left out a few things, but that's a good start anyway. Most specifically, I've left out the two extraordinary main characters--Daniel Waterhouse and Eliza de la Zeur, each of whom has a picaresque role that has crudely been designated in recent years as the abominable movie Forrest Gump. That is, they are the fictional connectors of major historical personages and in many ways the quiet movers of history. If I had to pare down the whole "what this book is about" thing, I'd say it's about the dawn of modernity--in science, in religion, in politics, and in capitalism (and in the interconnections of all of these). It also has numerous sly winks at the present, many of which serve to mock our notion that everything and anything is new or unprecedented. (Leibniz, for instance, in a letter notes that the rapid pace of modern life is being blamed for the rising incidence of "Canal Rage" among the gondoliers.)

If you'd like to immerse yourself for a while in the intrigues of 17th-century European politics, religion, war, commerce, and science, then I heartily recommend Quicksilver. Just don't make any plans for a while...

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