A thought about Cryptonomicon I had from reading the comments on the Yamamoto thread, and that was confirmed by the poll results: It's hard to argue with those who love it, or those who hate it. But lots of people — at last count, 158, including me, out of the 459 that voted — say that it's one of their favorite novels (and that doesn't count the ones who said that it's merely excellent but not one of their favorites). My guess is that there are few novels that arouse such enthusiasm, even if many novels arouse less hostility.

So if you spend $9 plus sales tax in a bookstore, or $5-$6 or so (including shipping) from an amazon used book seller, plus 30 minutes or however long it takes for you to get a sense of whether you like the book, you have a decent chance of getting a novel that will become one of your favorites. Since I get tremendous pleasure from novels I really love, don't much care about the $5-$6, and am often willing to risk the 30 minutes, that sounds like a good gamble to me.

More broadly, many choices are not just about how likely you are to like something, but how much of a benefit you're likely to get out of it if you like it, and how much of a cost it will be if you dislike it. With some forms of entertainment, the downside is unlikely, but the upside is pretty low. With others, including certain kinds of books (or for that matter with trying a new restaurant), the downside may be more probable but not very expensive, and the upside can be great. If so, it's worth a try.

bornyesterday (mail) (www):
While I really enjoyed Cryptonomicon, I preferred the Quicksilver Trilogy, and absolutely loved Snow Crash.
11.1.2007 8:33pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
I've been recognized by name twice by people I've been introduced to--just for being listed in the acknowledgments page of that novel.
11.1.2007 9:21pm
Thales (mail) (www):
One thing that is great about all of Stephenson's mature books is his self-assuredness. He doesn't care that the books will be uninviting to some and an undertaking (though I think a literarily and intellectually satisfying one) for most. He has a story to tell and a pretty unique style. While I'm not sure I would rank any particular novel of his as one of my favorites, he is definitely one of my favorite *authors*. I love Snow Crash but actually think it is his most overwritten book.

I also completely disagree that all his characters have the same verbal manner or thought patterns. It's pretty clear that Bobby or Jack Shaftoe or Eliza differ enormously from Daniel or Lawrence or Randy Waterhouse for example, or Newton from Leibniz from Hooke too. What is the same is the narrator's voice, which of course *frames* the mental events of the characters. But I don't think that's the same thing.

Anyway, I heartily second Eugene's recommendation.
11.1.2007 9:28pm
I loved Cryptonomicon, but I actually couldn't even finish the 2nd book in the Quicksilver trilogy. The trilogy seemed similar to Cryptonomicon, but it was just so tedious.
11.1.2007 9:44pm
The Cabbage:
What bornyesterday said.
11.1.2007 9:52pm
Kat (www):
My first serious boyfriend told me to read Snow Crash as a compatibility test. Not a bad one as such things go.
11.1.2007 9:54pm
Amongst all of the chatter about where to buy the book, let's not forget picking it up at your local library.
11.1.2007 10:19pm
Dan28 (mail):
Yeah, the library example helps to clarify the real economics of reading; it's not the investment of resources, it's the investment of time. The $10 for a paperback is about equal to a movie, and if it is good, it provides far greater entertainment (of a different, more important form) that lasts much longer. But the fact that it takes so much longer to consume is exactly connected to the "price" of the entertainment; you have to commit much more of your time (the ultimate truly limited resource) to gain that benefit. There definately have been books where it took hours rather than 30 minutes to determine whether I'd like it, and some books (including some of my favorites) I'm not sure how I feel about until I get to the end. I wouldn't mind getting the hours I spent reading "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" back, for example. So I think in a way, the original post has it backwards; books are the most expensive form of entertainment, but in return, they are also clearly the most rewarding.
11.1.2007 10:39pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
I couldn't respond to the poll because I refuse to touch the book. It's been so overhyped by so many people that I just won't touch it. I'm probably alone in this, but maybe not.
11.1.2007 10:49pm
CDU (mail):
Time is definitely the largest investment in reading a book. However, I think that there's still a huge upside to the decision to read a book. If I decide to try a crappy book, I'm out however much time it took me to read it (or the time it took before I gave up in disgust). If I decide to buy a good book, I get however many hours of entertainment out of it. The benefits of trying a truly great book last a lifetime.

As far as Stephenson's works go, he's one of my favorite authors. I really like Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and the Diamond Age, but my favorite is In the Beginning...was the Command Line. But then, I'm geeky enough to find a philosophical essay about operating systems interesting.
11.1.2007 11:03pm
Good point on the risk / benefit analysis. As one of the few who didn't like it, I have to admit that the worst-case scenario is that you spend a month of evenings on it and come away with mixed feelings. That, with the possibility that you may be dazzled and find a new favorite novel makes it well worth a try.
11.1.2007 11:29pm
Risk/Benefit analysis has to include opportunity cost. The book is--what?--12,000-pages long. If it's a fun read, that's good enough for me. A book doesn't have to be enlightening. (I don't think I learned a single thing from "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal." But I don't count the time lost.)

But the "Cryptonomicon" would take up the time that I could use to save the world from global warming. Or Bearmanpig. Can I really afford that? Can the world?
11.1.2007 11:47pm

Can I really afford that? Can the world?

No you can't... I'm totally serial.
11.1.2007 11:54pm
Christopher M (mail):
Does anyone who loved Cryptonomicon think it was really well written? Like, on a sentence-by-sentence level? I get the idea from most people who like it that they like it because it's clever, and Stephenson uses a bunch of different, kind of cool ideas, which are fun to recognize and also to think about. Dan Brown does the same thing, but with a specific religious (or anti-Religious) message that turns some of the same people off.
11.2.2007 12:04am
CDU (mail):
I think it's quite well written. However, it's written in a distinct Stephensonian style, which may not be everyone's cup of tea.
11.2.2007 12:14am
The Cabbage:
John Armstrong,

That means the book is Casablancaed. Something is Casablancaed when it is hyped beyond belief. Everyone you know and every opinion you trust is raving about the book/movie/album/play and how wonderful it is. You know there is no way it can possibly live up to the hype, so you never seek it out.

Then you've got nothing better to do one day and you spot it laying on a shelf/on AMC/in the ipod playlist/before a date when your desperate to look cultured, so you say 'why not? it probably won't suck.'

When your done reading/watching/listening/watching, you sit and think, "Wow. They were all right, and no one embellished. That was awesome."

Realizing that something was Casablancaed is an interesting moment. You're not angry, because you just experienced something quite excellent. But there is the tiniest bit of regret that you didn't trust everyone. Of course, the regret leaves the moment your idiot friend convinces you to spend nine of your hard earned dollars to go see "Syriana".
11.2.2007 12:23am
I love Cryptonomicon. In my experience people either love it or hate it (although VC poll results don't bear that out) and that's a sign of good entertainment/good art, as far as I'm concerned.

I read Cryptonomicon around the same time as Don DeLillo's Underworld and I think they're comparably complex and full of enjoyable tangents. But Stephenson is a lot more fun to read. I'll probably re-read Cryptonomicon as a result of these VC threads, I don't think I'll ever read Underworld again—although White Noise was fun the second time around—despite arguments to the contrary.

These two guys stick together in my mind. I think they're both great writers, both affected, both subject to indulging themselves. But Stephenson is a lot of fun to read while Delillo is a lot of fun to have read. Or—in the case of the Body Artist—to say you have read.

I also really enjoyed Cobweb and Interface by "Stephen Bury". They're quick, enjoyable reads that might give the reader a sense of whether they're willing to commit to Stephenson's longer solo works.
11.2.2007 12:29am
Christopher M (mail):
To put it another way -- I didn't mean to sound hostile to Cryptonomicon -- it's not just a random thing whether you'll like it or not, or at least I'd be surprised if it were. So if you're really into Henry James, Stephenson is relatively unlikely to be up your alley (not that he couldn't be...some of us have wide alleys).
11.2.2007 12:30am
Christopher M, the only thing hostile is putting Dan Wilson's name inside the same <div> as Neal Stephenson.
11.2.2007 12:41am
Freddy Hill:
Kat: So did you pass the test?
11.2.2007 12:44am
Kevin P. (mail):
I second checking the book out from your local library.

I loved Cryptonomicon and so checked out the Baroque Cycle novels. I am glad I borrowed them from the library - I found them to be verbose, without a discernable plot and unreadable (to me anyway). I gave up after 200 pages.
11.2.2007 1:09am
Anon. Lib.:
I thought Cryptonomicon was an entertaining genre piece, with fun ideas and enjoyable sequences, but I don't think it is elegantly written, tightly plotted, or possesses any psychological depth. I presume thats by design. Stephenson seems interested in discussing lots of ideas, suggesting connections between disparate phenomena, inventing cool lifestyles for some characters, and creating some fun, wish fulfilment type characters (i.e., any of the Shaftoes). He would have to sacrifice those interests if he were to aim for more traditional literary values.
11.2.2007 10:14am
AC (www):
Prof. Volokh -

Any chance we can make this a semi-regular column? You or your guest-bloggers can recommend one of their favorite all time books, take a poll, and share comments?

Sure there are a lot of sites that do this, but this community is close-knit enough that book recommendations are likely to be spot on.
11.2.2007 10:20am
Snowcrash and even the Golden Age were engrossing novels that made me feel like I was about to discover something important about the nature of humanity. Cryptonomicon was interesting and enjoyable, but did not inspire the same sense of awe and wonder. The Baroque Cycle (I'm halfway through book two) is one of those books that you can put down, and can put down repeatedly, as I have done over the past two years that I have been "reading" it.
11.2.2007 10:25am
I should say that "The Baroque Cycle . . . is one three of those books . . . "
11.2.2007 10:26am
CWuestefeld (mail) (www):
It's funny how so many of us loved it, but seem to disagree strikingly about what is good or bad about it.

Those who think the characterizations are poor are IMHO crazy. I can't imagine more of a contrast than the feverish haze of Waterhouse's perspective while at Princeton or Bletchley Park relative to, say, the razor-sharp determination of Goto while building the tunnel network. As noted elsewhere, these differences may have been obscured occasionally by Stephenson's ...ummm... unusual way of describing some events, such as the Hindenburg disaster or the fighting in the streets of the Philippines or eating Captain Crunch.

To me, the neat ideas (like the digital computer operated by standing waves in pipes of mercury) are only one of many reasons to love the book. Another is those very unusual ways of describing (and thus, for us, experiencing) familiar events.

I loved Cryptonomicon so much that I pre-ordered Quicksilver sight unseen (in hard cover, spending far more than $10). I've tried to read it twice, and once on audiobook, and found it wholly unreadable. Yes, it's got cool ideas, makes me understand the dynamics of pirate ship sailing, and unusual descriptions, but is absolutely devoid of plot as far as I could determine by 1/3 through the book.

So I've got ~$30 invested in Quicksilver, plus MANY hours, and a complete lack of satisfaction. Still, following what another poster wrote, I'll give the 2nd Baroque book a shot.
11.2.2007 10:36am
skyywise (mail):
DJR: I think you also meant The Diamond Age.

And Stephenson had me hooked with that first description of "The Deliverator" in Snow Crash.
11.2.2007 10:37am
30 minutes or however long it takes for you to get a sense of whether you like the book,

An author who can't hook me on the first page isn't worth bothering with...

I don't think it is elegantly written, tightly plotted, or possesses any psychological depth.

Agree, though I found the second issue most troublesome.
11.2.2007 10:54am
Sk (mail):
Agree with many here. I really liked Cryptonomicron, REALLY REALLY liked his science fiction (Diamong Age and Snow Crash, I think?), but tried and got bored with the history novels (the Baroque Cycle). And, I mean, bored within a few dozen pages. I don't know why the difference.

11.2.2007 11:38am
Guy with cluttered house:
Another vote for the library. Other posters mentioned the time investment relative to the purchase cost, but the third and overwhelming factor for some of us is the cost of having another book on the shelf. Yes, giving them away is the obvious answer (or selling any with residual value), but some of us are too nutty to let go of a book we loved. Better to read it from the library and preserve precious shelf space (and preserve marital harmony! :-) ).

And I loved Cryptonomicon.
11.2.2007 12:42pm
Peter B. Nordberg (mail) (www):
<i>"My guess that there are few novels that arouse such enthusiasm."</i>

11.2.2007 1:37pm
To those people who stopped reading Quicksilver 200 pages in or so and haven't found the plot:

It's because the plot hasn't started yet. It's called The Baroque Cycle for a reason.
11.2.2007 2:18pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Wow, Professor, you are really hooked into the Internet -- not surprising I suppose for a blog impresario.

But you can still borrow novels free for nothing at the public library.
11.2.2007 2:59pm
casa (mail):
The Cabbage said, That means the book is Casablancaed. Something is Casablancaed when it is hyped beyond belief. Everyone you know and every opinion you trust is raving about the book/movie/album/play and how wonderful it is. You know there is no way it can possibly live up to the hype, so you never seek it out.

I don't mean to divert attention from the main topic, but since I haven't read the novel I may as well comment on this.
I heard many things about Casablanca, and it did indeed live up to the hype. It is the most wonderful movie I have ever seen, and once every so often I pull it out to watch it again. I never grow tired of it, and it always seems fresh to me. So I think a different movie will have to be picked for the intended definition.
Anyone who has not seen that movie should do so.
11.2.2007 3:03pm
Kat (www):
Freddy Hill: yes.

As for Stephenson's work in general -- I tend to like the idea density... very little original to him but all tied together and connected in ways few others do, and it's clear that he's got more than a superficial understanding of what he's writing about. And I enjoy the digressions about as much as the primary plot; he's not an author to read if you care about the plot advancing quickly...
11.2.2007 3:58pm
Cal (mail) (www):
I've read all of Stephenson's work through Cryptonomicon, and they all suffer from the same problem--follow-through. The first two-thirds of all his books are outstanding, but they never deliver the last act. It's a shame, because each of his books has several sequences that are sublime (Hiro getting the pizza with 12 minutes left, Randy--I think it's Randy--composing haikus while hanging on to a truck doing its best to barrel through a crowded street).

Cobweb and Interface are written with (I believe) his uncle, who doesn't share that problem. Consequently, while neither of these two books are as flashy and don't hit the same highs as Stephenson on his own, they are solidly entertaining and I reread them often.
11.2.2007 4:43pm
bobby B (mail):
(repeat, since I put it in the wrong spot earlier.)

I read Crypto, moved on to the B Cycle, read Crypto again and got more out of it, read the B Cycle again and started to understand more of the undercurrent, and then read it again and understood even more, read Snow Crash and the Diamond Age and an awful non-fiction about operating systems that was almost painful and then read Diamond Age again, and Crypto and the BC . . .

Make fun of his grammer or his style or his prose or his spelling or . . . whatever you wish, but NS writes the most goddam intelligent, demanding, intricate and entertaining books I have found, with the side benefit that the guy must know just about everything about just about everything (or must, at least, research The Complete History of The World for each book.) The side comments about navigating in the 14th century followed by the making of gunpowder followed by cryptology followed by details of how masters used pigments followed by cogent explanations of rather impenetrable mathematical concepts followed by mapmaking lore followed by . . .

Good? Bad? Dunno. I loved them.
11.2.2007 6:47pm
scote (mail):
I have to disagree with the premise. I liked the Cryptonomicon but I didn't love it. I especially dispute the amount of thermal energy needed to melt all the gold in the cache. I suspect it would have taken a lot more fuel and a lot longer to melt.

Snow Crash, on the other hand, I loved.
11.2.2007 8:33pm
BobVDV2 (mail):

I've been recognized by name twice by people I've been introduced to--just for being listed in the acknowledgments page of that novel.

My wife's uncle was acknowledged in the Baroque Cycle for a very obscure doctoral thesis 40 years ago about Leibniz (Neil Stephenson was probably one of three people who read it, including my wife's uncle who typed the thing). He was absolutely tickled when I called to ask if he was the same person who was mentioned.

After you read Snow Crash, get a free account on Second Life before you comment again on VC.
11.3.2007 12:11am
bskott (mail) (www):
I thought Snow Crash was ok, but loved Cryptonomicon. The Baroque Cycle is trickier. The first one was pretty slow, but the second really picked up the pace, and the parts in India were particularly enthralling. The third I had a tough time getting through. And I saw Stephenson speak... Not a good public speaker. Still, I'll read everything he puts out at this point. If nothing else, I know I'm going to learn a lot.
11.3.2007 2:24pm
Okay. Last night I was with my girlfriend at Half Price Books and I found a copy. The list price was $8.99; there was 50% off, plus an additional 50% off because my GF is an employee of the store. So, I had better love this book or I am holding EV personally responsible for the $2.25 (plus sales tax) that I've spent on this book. ;-)
11.3.2007 5:56pm
(I almost never buy books. I don't like to have lots of things, since most of the stuff I own feels like a burden--not counting the tv, of course. And the libraries to which I have access are very good. So . . .)

I also vote for the library, and will look for it when I'm done with the Iain Pears jag that I'm on right now.
11.4.2007 9:51pm