Modern Times

The Soul of a New Machine

by Tracy Kidder
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 293 pp., $13.95

Journalists who want to write about practically anything now seem to begin, as a matter of course, in some remote, unlikely place, and in a sort of random walk approach the subject matter in question only when and if it suits them. Here is an example—followed by a short quiz. It—the example—is taken from the opening paragraph of the prologue to the book that I have every intention of reviewing as soon as I am done with this prologue.

All the way to the horizon in the last light, the sea was just degrees of gray, rolling and frothy on the surface. From the cockpit of a small white sloop—she was thirty-five feet long—the waves looked like hills coming up from behind, and most of the crew preferred not to glance at them. There were no other boats in sight, but off to the south for awhile they could see the reassuring outlines of the coast. Then it got dark. Running under shortened sails in front of the northeaster, the boat rocked one way, gave a thump, and then it rolled the other. The pots and pans in the galley clanged. A six-pack of beer, which someone had forgotten to stow away, slid back and forth across the cabin floor, over and over again. Sometime late that night, one of the crew raised a voice against the wind and asked, “What are we trying to prove?”

Now the quiz. The subject of this book is:

A. The America’s Cup race

B. The sperm whale

C. The design of a computer called the Eclipse MV/8000.

If you answered “C” you are right.

Tracy Kidder, the author of The Soul of a New Machine, the opening paragraph of which you have just read, is, I would guess, a young writer. He is also, to judge from this book, a very good writer, but he has taken an awful chance. For the “new journalism” to work we must believe essentially every word. As outrageous as Tom Wolfe’s astronauts may appear, we have to believe that if we had been there and seen what Wolfe is describing, they would have been like that. Once we allow ourselves to think that any of his account might have been made up, the whole thing loses its point, and evaporates. Anyone can make things up, but you have to be Wolfe to organize reality in the astonishing but usually credible ways he does. However, here is a young writer who has chosen to write about a subject—the design of computers—so far removed from the common experience that for most people it is almost fiction to start with, and who has chosen to do it in such a way that I, at least, put the book down in the middle and said to myself, “This is fantastically interesting but how do I know that he simply did not make all of this up?”

It is true that in the book there…

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