Friday, May 1, 2009

Book Review: Dreaming in Code

Dreaming in Code has been out for a few years now, and it's received glowing reviews, some of which are linked from its website. This is not one of those reviews: I ended up returning the book to the library after getting barely halfway through. I found it boring, so much so that I preferred reading about the history of paint.

DiC is often compared to Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine. The latter book came out while I was in high school, and I consider it one of the influences that led me into the computer industry. Superficially, the two books are very similar: they're both histories of a high-tech project, written for a non-technical audience. Both chronicle the successes and failures of the project, both profile the people involved. And yet, SoaNM just does it better. Before writing this post, I opened my copy to a random page for insight … and read to the end of the chapter. Nearly thirty years after it was written, and with the knowledge that I've gained in that time, it still held my interest. Why? And why didn't DiC?

The answer, I think, starts in the prologue. Rosenberg writes of his own experiences programming. Kidder takes us onto a sailboat, running before a storm, and introduces us to Tom West. Every book needs a protagonist, and Tom is ours: we learn of his character, and the events of the prologue are a foreshadowing of the rest of the book. Turn to any page, and Tom West is nearby. Rosenberg, by comparison, lacks a protagonist: Mitch Kapor is a visionary on the fringes, and there are a succession of project managers and programmers who never really step up to the role. Perhaps that's why the project failed, but it doesn't make for good reading.

Not only does DiC not have a protagonist, it doesn't have a crisis. The team in SoaNM is working against a deadline, against internal competition, and against their own limitations. A conventional plotline, but it works, and it moves the book forward. By comparison, the team in DiC drifts around, throws out ideas to see if they stick, and then drifts away. I'm sure there was pain and angst in the Chandler offices, but that never makes its way to the page.

Or perhaps it does, but is diluted by the mass of explanatory material that Rosenberg injects into the book. And here we come back to a difference obvious from the prologues: Rosenberg is a part of the computer industry, even if his job has been to write about it. Kidder is a journalism professor, who likely had never used a computer before this book. Both need to present technical material in their books, and in rereading, I'm amazed at just how dense the technology is in SoaNM. But the difference is telling: Rosenberg looks at the material with an insider's eye, while Kidder is an outsider who has to learn before writing. And in so doing, he distills the content, giving enough detail for the novice, but not so much that the knowledgeable reader is bored.

After three weeks with Dreaming in Code, I gave up. The book was due back to the library, and I didn't have a lot of interest in continuing to read it. Based on what I've read about the project elsewhere, that seems appropriate.

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