I'm currently reading the Baroque Cycle
by Neal Stephenson. I'm about two thirds of the way through the third volume, System of the World. It's a large work, about 2500 pages altogether, easily the largest single work of literature I've ever read.
The Baroque Cycle
is an adventure story that takes place in the 17th and 18th centuries and includes such characters as Isaac Newton, Louis XIV (the Sun King), Gottfried Leibniz, William of Orange, James I of England, and many other real folks, plus an extensive cast of wonderful fictional characters, people you feel you come to know and care about (or despise, if they are villains). There's also a companion web site, a wiki called the Metaweb
that is really useful in keeping track of who's who.
From reading Stephenson's work, I've gained a much greater feeling for the massive scope of history and the incredible machinations that formed western society as it is today. Not just individual facts, although there are plenty of those, but also an overall sense that many of the things I take for granted in the society I live in (United States, middle class), things like science, money, the concept of individual freedoms, aren't necessarily givens. Real people living real lives and all that that entails caused these things, either deliberately or otherwise, to come into being. And it very easily could have been otherwise.
Some of you may not be familiar with Neal's work. His novels tend to be great adventures, real page turners, with the rare addition that he's also an excellent writer. It's the kind of stuff where you want to read paragraphs aloud from time to time. I'll actually give out an occasional audible yelp when encountering a particularly unexpected turn of plot.
Stephenson made a huge splash in the science fiction world with works such as The Diamond Age and Snow Crash. He also wrote an excellent essay on computers, society and everything called "In the Beginning was the Command Line
." If nothing else, you should at least check this out.