Review: In the Beginning…Was the Command Line

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s entirely possible that “Neal Stephenson thinking about stuff” might be one of my favorite genres of non-fiction.

This little book is an oddity. It’s a seventeen-year-old look at the state of computer operating systems, but it’s also essays, musings, and other thoughts. Hence my earlier point: it’s Stephenson thinking about stuff.

And for anyone else, that would be a criticism. But Stephenson is fascinating. You can tell by his work that when he becomes interested in a topic, he throws himself headfirst into it with the velocity of a BASE jumper. He does his homework. And his research. And his dissertation. He tends to know what he’s talking about.

Even so, what’s the value of a book that, in timeline terminology relative to the speed of computers, is somewhere between cave paintings and the emergence of cuneiform tablets? Certainly, these observations have no bearing on the state of computers and operating systems today. Google doesn’t exist at the time of these writings. Apple hadn’t yet made its triumphant return under Steve Jobs. Microsoft was the evil empire with an antitrust case to fend off. It was a different time.

And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s a little time machine, a look back at the heady days of the late nineties, just as this whole “computer thing” was starting its ascent into the stratosphere. It was written about a year after I received my first computer, which caused me to reflect on how things were back then. More than once, I marveled at Stephenson’s observations as I read his book on a tablet in ebook format, with that strange little thrill that yes, sometimes these gadgets really do feel like the future has arrived.

This book, more than anything, is a glimpse at the digital zeitgeist from those bygone days. Apple fans can remember the dark times while Linux fans can enjoy Stephenson’s musing on how it really is the superior tool for superior minds. Windows fans . . . well, get ready to endure some light griefing. Hey, it was the 90s. Early versions of Windows really were pretty bad. The blue screen of death and the three fingered salute (ctrl-alt-delete) didn’t become early memes for no reason. If you’re interested in the pop side of computer history, here’s a book that will take you down memory lane (assuming you were alive in the 90s). Stephenson’s a masterful storyteller, so you know that it’ll be worth it.

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