Story: Programmer and Wired columnist David S. Bennahum recalls tales of a troubled youth – starting with his parents’ separation and leading to some juvenile delinquency – that was turned around when he was presented with the gift of an Atari 800 computer. Though he originally wanted to play games on it, Bennahum discovers a new love in the art of programming and hacking, and new ethical struggles in learning how to use that knowledge.
Review: I’ll come right out and say this upfront about “Extra Life” – it’s a great read (and I’m not alone in thinking that, as apparently the rights to the book have just recently been optioned for a movie), but whether or not you really “get” the book’s emotional core and its author’s struggles will depend on whether or not you were around and aware of the computer revolution as it was happening. If nothing else, Bennahum really latches on the sense of sheer wonder of growing up in that era. In his lifetime (and in mine), computer power where the consumer was concerned rose from pocket calculators and the Magnavox Odyssey to the modern era of multimedia and the internet. It’s hard to explain to anyone who didn’t experience the same learning and evolutionary curve at the same time, but the 70s and early 80s were a mind-boggling time to be alive and interested in technology. Bennahum does an outstanding job of getting that across.
He also does a great job of telling a story of a childhood and adolescence that are already troubled, but could have gotten a lot worse. This is the emotional core of the book, as he charts his own descent and a bit of an epiphany that leads to him turning his life around, but he also charts the emotional curve of his younger sister, who doesn’t experience the same turnaround. If I had any problem with the book, it’s the way in which the thread about the author’s sister was handled. At one point he berates himself a bit, stating his belief that big brothers are supposed to protect their little sisters…but then we’re back to business as usual in the next paragraph. It’s a bit like a windup without a pitch. The rest of his personal story, however, and particularly how his fascination and love for the computer helped him get off of the downhill slope, resonates deeply with me.
The technical detail is impeccable, and yet not so technical as to lose the layman. I’ve never laid eyes on a PDP-11, but Bennahum was able to give me a feel for how that particular computer operated, enough that he’s able to start using the broad details of its operating procedures as metaphors in his storytelling. There are many instances like that where the book is very clever indeed, and it spices things up a lot.
Once he hits college, the author begins winding things down, retelling a nervous interview for a job at Microsoft to edge toward a discussion about how real code hackers and programmers have fallen by the wayside to make room for “power users,” and I can’t say I completely disagree with him there. (I’m probably more of a power user myself, come to think of it.) But that analysis of the evolution of the concept of user interface is fascinating to contemplate, almost worth another book on its own.
In the end, the only puzzling thing about “Extra Life” is why I haven’t seen its author’s name on the cover of another book yet.
Author: David S. Bennahum
Publisher: Basic Books
Pages: 238 pages