Wednesday, 26 May 1999

Don's Delight

Oh dear... I was asked by the Guardian to contribute to their rather fun "Don's Delight" short column in which academics (quite a distinguished lot as I recall) were asked for an account of the "book that changed their lives".

Now academics are a funny lot (aren't we..) and some were writing more to enhance their reputation (shall we say) then with an eye to veracity - or entertainment. Some pretty unlikely and dreary tomes were thus claimed as pivotal.

Inevitably I came to this a bit tongue in cheek and rather than saying The Aeneid of Virgil or whatever, I wrote the short contribution below. To a large extent it is true too - the book did empower me in an unexpected way and started me, as it did so many others, off along an interesting journey that I'm still enjoying today.

Curiously enough it generated a heap of interest too and a lot of correspondence that explored how today's computer users are relatively disenfranchised - they are tool users rather than tool makers...

Anyway, here's the piece:

I am an inveterate reader with a passion for reading that started early and shows no sign of diminution today. My reading was and still is eclectic. I read anywhere and everywhere and for a professor steeped in new technology have retained an unlikely love for the texture and smell of printed paper.

However, picking the book that changed my life from the many that have simply made a contribution is not a trivial task; there have been so many books that one way or another nudged me in a new direction: Enid Blyton left me with an unquenchable thirst for adventure and a completely misplaced optimism that all would be well in the end that I retain today, Shaw's Prefaces awakened my political soul, the dismal circles of Dante's Inferno cautioned me against futility, I adore Chaucers Canterbury Tales for the sounds and rhythms, Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull encouraged me to strive for (elusive) perfection, Marcuse's One Dimensional Man convinced me change could be made to happen whilst Ransomes beloved Swallow and Amazons fed my love of sailing and my children's a generation later. Together with a thousand other books they helped make me what I am, warts and all.

But the single book that really changed my life was one that showed me how to harness and tame technology; it convinced me that people, with the right tools, could be part of an information and communication revolution where they could actively control what was on their screens and swap their passive lives as couch-potatoes for creative lives as contributors.

The book? Sinclair ZX81 Basic Programming Guide by Steven Vickers. It came free with my Sinclair ZX81 and was the only book in the box. It probably still is the most boring book in the world and, looking back at a copy here in my computer archives, largely incomprehensible. It contains advice about peeking and poking, RAM and ROM and other previously implausible pairings. But in the depths of its turgid prose ("you will find you can use X$ as input data without any trouble") lay the key that liberated me through technology in a way that the great cluncky mainframes of my student days never could. It literally changed my life and began a people's revolution that is running yet.

© Stephen Heppell 1999