Author: Ellen Ullman
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.