Review: The Diamond Age

November 2, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Diamond Age

This is my current favorite Neal Stephenson book (*subject to abrupt change). In terms of creative futuristic thinking, it leaves Snow Crash in the dust, and its deep thoughts are a good deal more accessible than those in most of his other good books. As usual, the writing is amazing and I continue to learn new words from this book, even though I make lists and look everything up every time I read it. But the most important thing about this book is its philosophy. A prominent theme is the importance of subversiveness, and how it is lacking in modern education. It’s an incredibly important idea; it’s so important that you really need to talk about it for 400 pages to sufficiently communicate its importance, which is why you just need to go out and read this book.

Another, lesser theme is the silliness of considering hypocrisy a vice. They make a big deal out of how the only reason hypocrisy became a crime was because it was the only thing that could be; if all lifestyles and all choices were equally valid and you couldn’t say any one was “bad,” then the only way to call someone out was to point out inconsistencies in their opinions and actions. I’m already in favor of not nitpicking over inconsistencies, so it was particularly interesting to me.

But what really hit me this time around is that this book is an argument for teaching reading/literary analysis in schools. Aside from being a really ripping story, The Diamond Age is a complicated critique of education, complete with an acknowledgement of how difficult a job education really is and suggestions for ways it needs to be improved. It is whole in the way a good allegory is whole: if you can really understand the surface text, the underlying connections to complex ideas and philosophies are magically clear without your having to articulate them or go through them one by one; you can skip straight to digestion without chewing. It is an efficient and enjoyable way to gather information and expand your thinking. BUT in order to access this wonderful process of acquisition, you must first be able to understand a text, and then you must have practice in the art of tying a text into abstract lessons and ideas. This is interesting because I had previously been unable to come up with a concrete argument for the importance of English class—the best I could do was some sort of “good for your soul” nonsense that wouldn’t cut it with real critics. And that’s what I love about Stephenson books—the revelations keep coming. I mean, this has to be at least the fifth time I’ve read this book. But this time it clicked.

As usual, a crashing success with brilliant writing. All hail!

EXCERPT:

When Dr. X made his way down half an hour later, he was nonetheless delighted and surprised to see the moderately famous and widely respected Judge Fang sitting all by his lonesome staring out at the pond, its schools of fish flickering lambently. When he approached the table to tender his respects, Judge Fang invited him to take a seat, and after several minutes of sensitive negotiations over whether this would or would not be an unforgivable intrusion on the magistrate’s privacy, Dr. X finally, gratefully, reluctantly, respectfully took a seat.

There was lengthy discourse between the two men on which of them was more honored to be in the company of the other, followed by exhaustive discussion of the relative merits of the different teas offered by the proprietors, whether the leaves were best picked in early or late April, whether the brewing water should be violently boiling as the pathetic gwailos always did it, or limited to eighty degrees Celsius.

Eventually, Dr. X got around to complimenting Judge Fang on his cap, especially on the embroidery work. This meant that he had noticed the unicorn and understood its message, which was that Judge Fang has seen through all of his efforts at bribery.

Not long afterward, Miss Pao came down and regretfully informed the Judge that his presence was urgently required at a crime scene in the Leased Territories. To spare Judge Fang the embarrassment of having to cut short the conversation, Dr. X was approached, moments later, by one of his staff, who whispered something into his ear. The Doctor apologized for having to take his leave, and the two men then got into a very genteel argument over which one of them was being more inexcusably rude, and then over which would precede the other across the bridge. Judge Fang ended up going first, because his duties were deemed more pressing, and thus ended the first meeting between the Judge and Dr. X. The Judge was quite happy; it had all gone just as planned.

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