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Review: ‘The Soul of a New Machine’ by Tracy Kidder

Review: ‘The Soul of a New Machine’ by Tracy Kidder post image

Title: The Soul of a New Machine
Author: Tracy Kidder
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 1981
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Two Sentence Summary: In 1981 computers were new, exciting, and mysterious. The Soul of a New Machine is an inside look at one company’s attempt to bring a new microcomputer to the market.

One Sentence Review: While some of the explanations of computer development and software coding went over my head, The Soul of a New Machine is a curious look back at a time when computers weren’t ubiquitous.

Why I Read It: I want to read everything by Tracy Kidder, and since this was his first major book I figured it was as good a place to start as any.

Long Review: I have a confession: It took me almost the entire book to figure out what the title of this book, The Soul of a New Machine, meant. I kept trying to figure out how a machine could have a soul or what part of the machine I was supposed to think the soul was. But then, I got it! The Soul of a New Machine isn’t really about computers, it’s about the people that are instrumental in finding the innovations that make those machines possible.

The Soul of a New Machine was written in 1981, and is one of Tracy Kidder’s first books. Technically it’s his second, but Kidder has said he’s so disgusted with hist first book that he never wanted it to see the light of day again (at least that’s the story as explained on Wikipedia). The Soul of a New Machine also won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1982, which is pretty cool.

The book follows a small group of engineers tasked with designing the next-generation of the microcomputer under the intense kinds of pressure that only innovative products seem to face. Although much of the book covers the design process of the new machine, the book is really about the people who have the personality to work constantly and entirely on a project like this for the time it takes to design, build, test, and produce a new computer.

I liked that you could get a sense while reading the book that Kidder was trying to be innovative in his approach to the subject. There are some moments when he inserts himself into the story, but it’s very subtle — definitely not the way current nonfiction writers are apt to do. It’s an early example of the technique that feels a little tentative, so tentative that it’s easy to miss.

I struggled a little bit with some of the computer explanations. You’d think that would actually make more sense, since now we know better how computers work, but for some reason a lot of it felt a little muddy to me. It still felt like a foreign language, and I ended up skimming some of the more technical sections and savoring the profiles of the engineers on the project.

Although The Soul of a New Machine is Kidder’s only Pulitzer Prize-winning book, I don’t think it’s necessarily his best. It’d be a great read for those who love Kidder’s writing and want more, or for people with a particular interest in technology or challenges in management and engineering. I had fun with the book and am still planning to read all of Kidder’s books, but it’s not necessarily my favorite.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) October 5, 2011, 12:55 pm

    Hm, I wonder if my husband would enjoy this book – it sounds right up his alley.

    • Kim October 6, 2011, 5:37 am

      It is kind of guy-ish book — almost all of the characters are men, characteristic of computer engineering in the ’80s, I suppose.

  • softdrink October 5, 2011, 1:34 pm

    I was all excited, thinking he had a new book out. Hah, boy was I wrong! Since it’s 30 years old and about technology, did it feel at all dated?

    • Kim October 6, 2011, 5:38 am

      Ha ha, no 🙂 I didn’t really think it felt dated at all. I know so little about how a computer works that it wasn’t as if he was telling me things I already knew. It was more about the design process of a machine, which seems like it’s relatively the same still.

  • Jeanne October 5, 2011, 7:11 pm

    We were assigned to read this when I was in grad school, and I remember not getting a lot of the computer stuff (my husband, who was in computers at the time and still is, loved it, as do all his computerist friends). I observe that one difference between then and now is that then people were still apologetic about not knowing how computing stuff worked, whereas now we’re all mostly just users. (How many people you know actually know how to program anymore?)

    • Kim October 6, 2011, 5:39 am

      I didn’t get much of the computer stuff at all either. You make a great point about why though — I definitely don’t think about how my PC works, just that it does what I want!

  • Trisha October 5, 2011, 8:17 pm

    I’m intrigued, but I’m not sure if this is where I will start with Kidder’s books.

    • Kim October 6, 2011, 5:40 am

      Nah, I wouldn’t start here if it’s your first Kidder book. Mountains Beyond Mountains is a good one to get a feel for his writing and style (plus, amazing story).

  • Kailana October 6, 2011, 8:41 pm

    I apparently should read this author. Maybe not this book specifically, but other books…

    • Kim October 7, 2011, 5:50 am

      I like Tracy Kidder a lot. I think he’s an excellent writer who picks amazing stories to tell.

  • Aths October 10, 2011, 5:48 am

    This is something I would like to try. I am usually so caught up in the technology world of today that I sometimes forget things weren’t so simple in the 80s. Also, now I’m curious about that first book by this author.

    • Kim October 16, 2011, 10:49 am

      I love reading first books by established authors — it’s fun to compare how their style has changed over time.

  • Care October 14, 2011, 1:26 pm

    Considering that my background is techie and I probably read this in the mid-80s, I suppose I can continue to claim that I LOVE THIS BOOK! But I don’t remember much. What I remember is thinking that Kidder is fantastic and writing nonfiction and he makes it all come alive in a readable way. I’m so glad you decided to tackle this one. Now I know someone else who has actually read it. I recommend HOUSE next. But again, it was a long time ago when I read that – I still thought he did an amazing job balancing three viewpoints, conflicting and contrasting ideas of how to achieve the ultimate goal: to build the house.

    • Kim October 16, 2011, 10:50 am

      He is so fantastic with nonfiction, it’s awesome. I’m trying to read them in order, so I think House is actually next. I’m really excited about that one — I have an awesome old paperback copy I got used at a book sale once.