Book review: 'The Soul of a New Machine' by Tracy Kidder

Posted on March 1, 2007

Being an author (occasionally) and having book events (rarer than occasionally), people often recommend other books or authors I should read. Usually the books pertain to what I have written about (technology) or possibly the style in which I attempt to write (sarcastic humor?).

Almost every time some suggests a book to me, I look into it and consider reading it. If I trust the person, I seek out the book, as is the case with "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder.

The nonfiction book takes us back to 1981, when the home computer was on the verge of becoming immensely popular. Kidder essentially followed a few of the important employees at Data General, a decent-size technology firm, throughout the building of a few new computers. During the explanations of what the programmers do at work, Kidder also brings to light the personality traits and backgrounds of many of the individuals.

Now I know why people have the mentality that all computer programmers are geeks.

I know there are businesses out there currently where the employees work all day, every day, and think they are saving the world. First, this just doesn't happen in the technology world; go ask a workaholic in any field. Second, people in the computing industry, at least nowadays, do usually have a life outside of work. Maybe things were drastically different back in the early '80s.

Kidder did capture the essence of someone who works nonstop, which is a scary thing, if you have ever been in that trap. In that way, I think he probably relates to a lot of people who have been in that scenario. At the same time, all of the characters seem to be the same person: A hard worker who is determined to finish the project, no matter how long it takes. Yes, that makes a great worker, but when everyone is like that, it's difficult to distinguish all of the characters.

Overall, I liked the book, but I wouldn't call it one of my favorites. The copy I read had a ton of typographical errors, which was somewhat bothersome, especially considering I was told by a Barnes and Noble rep once that my book cannot possibly have enough editing to be decent. Hello, this book won the Pulitzer Prize!

Unless you are interested in the history of computers or the history of companies in general, I'm not sure you'll get much out of this book. The writing is pretty decent, however, so even if you just want to relax while reading about people who relax only a few hours a month, maybe the irony will carry you through.