Book Review: In the Beginning... was the Command Line

by Rael Dornfest

In the Beginning... was the Command Line

by Neal Stephenson

Paperback, 151 pages, Avon Books, 1999

Simultanously hysterical, pointed, and insightful, Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning... is a delicious meal disguised as a snack. Hackers and those who's VCRs are flashing "12:00" alike are sure to read each page twice or more to be sure they've not missed a nuance.

The book is brief history of the computer, from mainframe to GUI. However, rather than soak the reader in only geeky details, Stephenson flips back and forth between user and plumber's perspectives. Why, if Linux is a (free!) sophisticated tank constructed of space-age technology and Windows a station wagon with "all the aesthtic appeal of a Soviet worker housing block," is it that everyone is buying the station wagon? Stephenson argues that our inability, given our busy schedules, to spend time comprehending details has us accepting the murky, inconsistent metaphors provided by todays graphical user interface.

Stephenson manages to seamlessly weave together witty personal anectodes and just the right level of analysis in a conversant style that's informative and a pleasure to read. Throughout, I found myself mumbling both "Heh, I remember that!" and "Hmm, I never thought of it that way."

By page 10, chortling my way through "If your aim was true, one [modem] cup would wrap its neoprene lips around the earpiece and the other around the mouthpiece, consummating a kind of informational sioxante-neuf," I thought I'd better make note of some quotables. By page 75, I had 65 more.

'Nuff said. I give In the Beginning... four out of a four possible Meerkats.