Books Make Odd Bedfellows

I generally read several books at once. Usually this is a work of fiction (or two) and then a non-fiction work such as a history text or a Buddhist work. Recently, with the time on my hands from the holidays and not feeling well, I’ve been attempting to finally finish The Baroque Cycle of Neal Stephenson (or “Mount Stephenson” as friends and I have called it before). It is the only thing of his that I’ve never finished though I’ve read and re-read the first half of it a couple of times. (This is actually not unprecedented as I must admit that I’ve never managed to finish The Two Towers or even start The Return of the King.)

The other book that I’ve been reading during the last few days is What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. The latter is (obviously) about the intersection of the sixties and the beginnings of the later PC revolution in computers. It is not a topic that I knew much about though I’ve known a bit of the general history from working in the industry all these years. The number of computer engineers influenced by and involved in the counterculture and the way it shaped their work is rather new to me, though I’ve read at least one of the popular essays on the topic in years past (such as Stewart Brand’s We owe it all to the Hippies).

The weird thing is the interaction between the two books in my own head. The Baroque Cycle deals with the underpinnings of the Enlightenment and, eventually, modernity in the creation of things like economics and the underpinnings of commerce with paper money, banks, credit, etc. Many of its characters are natural philosophers, like Isaac Newton. As an entertaining series of books, there is much strangeness and adventure. This winds up contrasted, as I switch books during the day, with various once-straightlaced engineers dropping acid and looking at the (then) giant computers as having the potential to augment the human mind and the eventual creation of the information age. It makes for an interesting contrast during reading. It’s geeks, geeks, geeks all the way down in both the fiction and the non-fiction.

I’m trying to think of what non-fiction book I should continue with after finishing Markoff’s book as I’m mostly through with it. I have at least another 1,000 pages of Stephenson’s trilogy to read so I will need a counterbalance. I simply cannot spend an entire day reading Stephenson without needing to break it up with something else.

I do recommend What the Dormouse Said if you have any interest in the antecedents of personal computing and the culture that gave rise to it. Stephenson, I generally recommend as well, but this trilogy is noted for being rather heavy going, even if it is rewarding to read.