Title: The Soul of a New Machine
Author: Tracy Kidder
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
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.
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!