Instructions for reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Step 1: Ask yourself if you would like to spend a week (or more, depending on how fast you read) with a new geeky, brilliant best friend. Really brilliant. As in annotates her own thoughts with encyclopedic attributions and classic Greek texts brilliant. If the answer is yes, proceed to step 2.
Step 2: Check out a copy of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin Books, 2006) by Marisha Pessl at your local library or purchase it at the nearest independent book store. (Hint: it’s worth buying).
Step 3: Develop patience (or muster whatever patience you already have). This is a long novel (514 pages in hardcover), and despite ample foreshadowing and small sputters, it doesn’t really take off until midway through the book. It takes a good amount of words to build a story with a plot and characters like those in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as well as vast amounts of accumulated supporting evidence to make that story believable.
Step 4: Cultivate an attitude of delight and appreciation. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is not a blockbuster movie, where large things happen loudly every 38 seconds. This book is more like a busy coffee shop a block away from a large University in a small Midwestern town – there is plenty of drama, but the drama is constructed of words and looks, and the special effects come in steaming mugs with literary quotes on them that require a ‘cooling off’ period before you can fully appreciate them.
Step 5: Read this book while sitting in a chair, possibly with a pen and paper handy for taking notes. Do not take this book on a backpacking trip (too heavy), on a weekend trip with the girls (really, really hard to have a lighthearted weekend if you are pulling yourself from these pages in order to do so) or to a physics convention (because it’s not at all about physics). Also, do not read this book while drunk (it will require a fully sober brain to appreciate it), sleepy (it will likely not help wake you up), or lazy (this book requires active curiosity). Actually, it doesn’t matter how or where you read this book. Just read it.
Step 7: Be alert for writing that will set your body humming like a literary tuning fork when struck against the perfect verb. Pessl can, and frequently does, write paragraphs that read like a drive down Lombard Street:
Jade was the terrifying beauty (see “Tawny Eagle,” Magnificent Birds of Prey, George, 1993). She swooped into a classroom and girls scattered like chipmunks and squirrels. (The boys, equally afraid, played dead.)
Step 8: Gasp when you realize that Marisha Pessl was under 30 when this novel was written.
Step 9: Persevere. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is worth showing up for the entire semester. One could argue (I am arguing, in fact) that the best part comes towards the end. Don’t skip around, don’t borrow anyone’s notes.
Step 10: Pay attention. There is a quiz at the end.