Reading Deeply Review: Close to the Machine

January 8, 2018 Uncategorized 9

Reading Deeply Review: Close to the MachineTitle: Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents
Author: Ellen Ullman
Source: Library
Rating: five-stars

Summary: Thoughtful, beautiful, really captured the joys and struggles of being a programmer. A favorite.

This is the first book I’m reviewing as part of my resolution to read more deeply. I’d really like to get more out of what I read, to truly be learning and retaining more of each book. I think something that will help me do that is reading connected books, so I’m currently reading through Ellen Ullman’s books, inspired by Veronica at The Thousand Book Projects‘s read of all things Toni Morrison. Previously, I’d read Life in Code, a series of essays that were both memoir and history of the field of computer science, published last year. Close to the Machine is a similar book, but published ten years earlier.

I loved this book for all the same reasons I loved Life in Code. The intro put what I tried to write in my earlier review perfectly – Ullman gives us an ‘account of the intimate experience of computation by a person and a saved slice of history’; she ‘write[s] about computers and her true life within a unified narrative’; and she is enough of an insider to be an expert, while also enough of an outsider to critically observe computer science culture. Her writing is beautiful. Her description of the joys and challenges of programming resonate with me. Her stories are educational historically and also prompt us to think more deeply about what is good and bad in computing culture. For that reason, I’d highly recommend this to any programmers or aspiring programmers, as well as anyone who wants to know what the field is like.

Although everything I said above could also be said about Life in Code, this book differs in several ways. Firstly, the essays were clearly written to be read together. Life in Code includes essays written over a decade. They were, I suspect, carefully chosen to include historical moments we still remember and topics that are relevant today. Close to the Machine includes essays that are all from the same time period in the author’s life. The computer science topics she addresses are different in every chapter, but the memoir part of each chapter flows directly into the next. I didn’t mind the unconnected essays in her previous book, which gave a great overview of a decade of computer science, but I did enjoy the connections here. These essays felt more intimate and not only because they included more of her personal life.  They were also more focused on her experience programming and her thoughts on the ethics of the profession, with fewer essays focused on larger events in computer science history. This slightly more personal perspective does not, however, prevent this collection from being an incredible overview of a particular period in computer science history.

Both this book and my life in code will be going on my very short list of all time favorite reads. I can’t say enough good things about it. Next I’ll be picking up Ullman’s fiction though, so I don’t really know what to expect! If it’s even close to as good as these essay collections, I’ll be a very happy reader.


9 Responses to “Reading Deeply Review: Close to the Machine”

  1. whatsnonfiction

    Wow, what a unique and unusual book. This sounds fascinating and I’m really impressed if it made your short list of favorites! I love memoir in essays and I’m interested in how she writes from your description. And a great idea to read through an author’s works, it’s always fascinating to see how writers evolve. This one really piqued my interest!

    • DoingDewey

      Her essay collections really aren’t like anything else I’ve read! I think she has a rare ability to capture what it feels like to be a programmer without getting lost in technical details. I’d love to hear what you think of this one 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      I find that I have trouble taking the time to really think about a book, even when I do pick up a book that deserves more though. It’s definitely something I want to work on 🙂
      DoingDewey recently posted…Nonfiction FridayMy Profile

  2. Amal

    I love your resolution to read more deeply. I would also like to get more out of the books I read, but that’s harder to do when my highest priority with reading is to escape the stresses of real life. As a result, the fiction I read tends to be light. However, that’s not true of the nonfiction I read, and I’m looking forward to participating in your nonfiction reading challenge this year.

    • DoingDewey

      Thanks Amal! I definitely do some escapist reading and I’m not sure I’ll really try to apply this resolution to that either. Some ‘light’ fiction has themes that deserve pondering, maybe all ‘light’ fiction could if you wanted it too, but I don’t – sometimes I just want a heartwarming read that doesn’t make me think too much. Like many things, it’ll be a balance, I think 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      This could just be me, but I feel like blogging makes reading deeply more challenging. There are constantly so many new books coming out, I hate to re-read or spend too much time on one book or even one author or subject. So far this year, I’m enjoying trying to slow down and do that anyway though 🙂

  3. ColorfulBookReviews

    I love your “reading deeply” challenge. With nonficion, it always seems better to read several books on the same or related topics than to read disconnected books, although I do both. There’s a couple of topics I’m always interested in, but there are also some topics I read about for a month or make a commitment to increase my knowledge of. And there are always random books that catch my eye too!

    You’re right that blogging makes reading deeply more difficult. Newer books get prioritized because they are more on topic and there is a race to get reviews out while they still feel relevant. Plus while reading other blogs there are so many new books featured that it drives excitement to read those books, although there are backlist ones that might be just as good or better. I think reading deeply around a topic or author is a great way to counter that tendency – there’s usually not many books by one author or on a particular subject released each year.

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