I had a copy of "Mason & Dixon", by Thomas Pynchon, for over 10 years. I got it for free or very cheap from a library surplus sale, and I carried the hardback book around with me, from place to place, for years. I had it in a box of "must reads" in storage. And after a decade, I finally decided to dive in. The only other book by Pynchon I had read, 20 years previously, was "The Crying of Lot 49". Well, the only book I read successfully, I had tried Gravity's Rainbow but never finished it.

The first and most obvious thing about this book is that the orthography and punctuation are all done with 18th century conventions. Or perhaps faux 18th century conventions, but in any case, apostrophes are used in "ed" endings, nouns are capitalized, "topic" is spelled "topick", and "Rev'd" has the d in superscript, among many other changes from our normal, modern conventions. It took me a while to adjust to this. Perhaps this says something about me, but rather than getting into the book's substance, I spent a lot of time adjusting to the style. Eventually, I did so, and once I got in the right mood, the chapters went relatively quickly, and I got the general point of the book---the episodic journeys of the titular characters, Mason & Dixon, across the world during the end of the Age of Exploration. I can even recall a few of these episodes. More or less. Many of which are mentioned in the book jacket, and in online summaries. There is a talking dog. And George Washington.

To be honest, though, my question when reading this book, and after finishing it, wasn't about the who or what or where of the plot---those were all pretty confusing, but I bet I could eventually suss that stuff out. My real question was about the "Why?". Apparently, this book took some time to write. It is almost 800 pages long in hardback. Pynchon is considered one of the most important novelists of the second half of the 20th century. While I am not looking for a doctrinaire or easy message, not looking for something that could be summed up on middle school reading lists a la To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye, I did expect some type of central theme to arise. There are sections of the book that talk about slavery and colonialism, but they seem to move on quite as quickly to another shaggy dog story (sometimes literally) as any other episode in the book. Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough, but I couldn't manage to fish out a central theme from the thick morass of the book's convoluted style and shifting, episodic structure.

This book was published in 1997, in the middle of the 1990s, we were at the end of history, it is said, and all the big debates were over and all that there was left to do was to laugh at the remainder of history, and perhaps to see if any light could shine through. But we were also hoping for a book that could break us out of that tedium, and were even earnestly making lists of works that would shatter our complacency. I don't know if that was Pynchon's mindstate, of course, but it was the zeitgeist. And while reading this, I wondered, if for all of Pynchon's skill and inventiveness, anyone would say "Mason & Dixon was the book that changed my life". And I can't imagine this book ever being the single book that woke someone up to the possibilities of life and literature.