Amazon tells me I bought my copy on October 30, 2002, and my blog tells me that I initially read it sometime in 2003 (before the blog itself actually started). Getting around to re-reading.
A very meta comment: it strikes me that if I were a wannabe writer, reading this book would be utterly discouraging. With 99% probability, you look at this honestly and say: there's no way in hell I could ever be this good. Stephenson pins the needle on imagination and style.
Neal Stephenson's game here is to visit a near-future world where (a) nanotech, AI, and virtual reality have fulfilled all their promises (and threats); (b) as an unexpected result, a neo-Victorian resurgence, with a technology-driven aristocracy. (And the Queen is, guess what, Victoria II.)
There's also an underclass. Widespread nano-abundance means nobody's starving, but there's a lot of petty crime and familial abuse.
The plot driver: Hackworth, a genius nano-architect, has been commissioned to generate a "primer" for a daughter of the aristocracy. It is, literally, a complete teacher and companion to whatever young female initially opens it. It tells immersive princess stories while painlessly teaching the reader/pupil the three R's and much more. (Like, eventually, theoretical computer science.)
Illegally, Hackworth conspires to generate a second copy for his own less fortunate daughter. But fate intervenes when a roving band of youths mug him, liberating his pirated copy. Which falls into the hands of the main protagonist, urchin Nell. Her subsequent adventures are thrilling, and occasionally poignant. (And sometimes hilarious. Page 175 of my copy describes the ingredient list for the condiment Hackworth glops onto his steak sandwich:
Hackworth took a bite of his sandwich, correctly anticipating that the meat would be gristly and that he would have plenty of time to think about his situation while his molars subdued it. He did have plenty of time, as it turned out; but as frequently happened to him in these situations, he could not bring his mind to bear on the subject at hand. All he could think about was the taste of the sauce. If the manifest of ingredients on the bottle had been legible, it would have read something like this: Water, blackstrap molasses, imported habanero peppers, salt, garlic, ginger, tomato puree, axle grease, real hickory smoke, snuff, butts of clove cigarettes, Guinness Stout fermentation dregs, uranium mill tailings, muffler cores, monosodium glutamate, nitrates, nitrites, nitrotes and nitrutes, nutrites, natrotes, powdered pork nose hairs, dynamite, activated charcoal, match-heads, used pipe cleaners, tar, nicotine, singlemalt whiskey, smoked beef lymph nodes, autumn leaves, red fuming nitric acid, bituminous coal, fallout, printer's ink, laundry starch, drain deaner, blue chrysotile asbestos, carrageenan, BHA, BHT, and natural flavorings.
(And there's a lot of other stuff going on too.)