Rereading: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 6, 2017

The-Soul-of-a-New-Machine-by-Tracy-KidderI first read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder just after it came out in 1981, before it won the Pulitzer and National Book awards in 1982. I read it again at the end of 2016. Thirty-five years later it is still a stunning book, even though the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, the title character, died long ago, a few remember. As I read The Soul of a New Machine a second time, I kept thinking, “What happened to these great people who worked so hard?” I decided I’d provide a review with research/annotations/links. If you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine I highly recommend you do. Most books about science and technology date very quickly, but this one hasn’t. Why? Because it’s about people, not a machine. The story reads like a novel.

I’ve spent days struggling to write this essay. The book is about engineers who push themselves to produce a new computer, working 80+ hour weeks, not for money, fame, or rewards. They are driven to invent by their desire to master knowledge and skills. I’ve always wished I had that kind of passion. A few days ago I read “How to Become a ‘Superager’” in the New York Times, that reports that older people who push themselves mentally stay cognitively healthy longer. It’s more than doing crosswords though. I believe what they were talking about is like how the folks worked in this book drove themselves to master a problem. You just keep going, keep working, keep trying, keep pushing, until the problem is solved. Because I’m retired, I know I can quit and kick back at any time, when I tire of a task. But I want to finish this essay, and I’ve had to constantly push myself. I wanted to reread this book, carefully summarize it, and find out everything I could about what happen to the people in the story since it’s publication.

mv8000I’m going to hyperlink the hell out of this review for two reasons. First, if you just read The Soul of a New Machine and have the same questions I did, this should be a handy resource. Second, if you haven’t read the book, seeing why I’m so fascinated with a 36-year-old book about a forgotten minicomputer should make you want to read it. The Soul of the New Machine is a perfect example of what is now called creative nonfiction, but that term didn’t exist back when it was first written. It essentially means using techniques borrowed from novelists to write compelling nonfiction. This writing technique is old, but I first noticed it in the 1960s. Truman Capote used it in his 1965 book, In Cold Blood, which he called a nonfiction novel. Tom Wolfe used it for The Electric Kool-Acid Test in 1968 and called it New Journalism. So by 1978, Kidder had plenty of models to choose from.

What’s particularly impressive about The Soul of a New Machine is Kidder didn’t know anything about computers. His editor at The Atlantic told him to write about computers. He didn’t want to. Then Kidder went sailing with Tom West, the god of the new computer, and became part of the story. That’s another common aspect of creative nonfiction – the author becomes a character in the story, letting us readers know how the story came to be.

Here’s a Zen koan. Who would you want to be – the storyteller or the subject? Back in 1978 would it have been more rewarding to be Tom West or Tracy Kidder? Or Carl Alsing, Chuck Holland or Ed Rasala. A Hardy Boy or Microkid? But I’m getting ahead of myself, because you probably don’t know who those people are. My point is Tracy Kidder had to learn about computers, but he also had to learn about why computers were so fascinating to this small group of people, and why they wanted to build a new one. Kidder had to go beyond that, he had to learn what how each of these engineers got on the path that led them to become creators of a computer. His effort was no less than the engineers building the Eagle.

When I reread a book I love, I want to know everything I can about it, especially about how it was written, and if the book is about real people, what happened to them after the book came out. This review will be full of links to the articles that answer some of those questions. I wish I could write like Tracy Kidder and write the 2017 update to the story. But just writing these 2,000+ words showed me how much work that involves. Writing 100,000 words is beyond my comprehension.


In February of 1978, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced the VAX, a groundbreaking line of 32-bit minicomputers. The story opens at Data General, DEC’s competitor, and their need to quickly produce a 32-bit supermini to compete with the VAX. Data General had a popular 16-bit minicomputer called the Eclipse, but decided to design a whole new 32-bit computer, code named Fountainhead, that would be superior to the VAX. As a backup, manager Tom West proposed a second project, to upgrade the Eclipse to 32-bit, which they code named the Eagle. The Soul of a New Machine is about the tremendous management and technical effort to redesign a 16-bit machine to work flawlessly as a 32-bit machine without a mode-bit. So owners of the 16-bit Eclipses could buy the new machine and run all their old software without any conversion. This rush effort took place in 1978 and 1979. In many ways it prefigures Steve Jobs’ effort to produce the Macintosh a few years later. Because they are stories about the men and women working long hours, sacrificing their personal lives, to give birth to a machine.


Most of the events in the story take place during 1978-1979, at Data General’s headquarters in Westborough, Massachusetts, off Route 495, in building 14A/B. I wish I could find photos of the actual offices and labs, especially where the Hardy Boys and Microkids worked. I’d like to see what their debugging tools looked like, and the prototypes named “Coke” and “Gollum.” This one photo from the early 1980s is the best I could do.

Kidder interviewed his subjects secretly at Data General, and outside of work, going to their homes, parties, outings and even sailing with Tom West. I wish I could find photos of those events and locations, but so far I haven’t. It’s weird to think such an heroic project took place in a dull basement of a nondescript building.


eagleteamThe first report from Wired Magazine shows the photograph on the right and lists who they were and where they are now. Unfortunately, the photo does not include Tom West, the Ulysses of the story. West was the manager who gathered a team of about two dozen men and one woman to build the Eagle, essentially in secret. Data General gave the real Fountainhead project publically to the engineers who had moved to North Carolina. There were two teams – The Hardy Boys who worked on hardware, and the Microkids who wrote the software. West had two lieutenants, Carl Alsing, who supervised the Microkids, and Ed Rasala who bossed the Hardy Boys.

Tom West – was the top level manager, and essentially the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine. The best post-book profile of West I found was “O, Engineers!” from Wired Magazine, for the 20th anniversary of the book. This essay is well worth reading because West talks about how the book affected his memory of events. He didn’t always appreciate the fame the book brought. Plus it’s a good summary of the story and an update about how people came to judge the book. I also found The Computer Museum Report from Spring, 1983 which reprints a dialog between Kidder and West. West died at 71, in 2011. Here is his obituary at the New York Times, and one at the Boston Globe.

Steven J. Wallach – was the Eagle’s architect. A 2008 New York Times piece that chronicles Wallach’s whole career. He continued to design computers and start companies after he left Data General.

Carl Alsing – was probably the second most important character in the book. Tom West was often a mystery to the Hardy Boys and Microkids. Alsing was his John the Baptist. This 1974 DataGeneral newsletter has some photos of younger Alsing and West.

I found this YouTube video for the Science Friday Book Club that interviews Asling, Holland and Shanahan in 2015. It briefly shows the ball maze Chuck Holland created and mentioned in the book. When I read that part I really wanted to see it.

Carl Asling, Chuck Holland, Betty Shanahan 2015


Goodreads Computer History BooksJust look at Goodreads “Popular Computer History Books” – The Soul of a New Machine comes in at #2. I’ve read many of these books over the years, and I find them incredibly inspiring. I worked with computers most of my working life, but I was always a low-level programmer, web designer, or computer tech support guy. I guess reading computer history books for me is about envy. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine is like reading family history, but about my cousins who succeeded in the big time. I’ve always loved science fiction and computers. I’m not the only one, became that combo is common. The Soul of a New Machine is also #2 on “50 All-Time Classic Books About Computers and Computing.” I have to assume there are many readers out there like me.

Yet, as I reread this book I constantly asked myself why I was reading about technology that went to the scrapheap decades ago, was never famous other than being in this book, and about computer engineers that few people remember today? Yet, reading The Soul of a New Machine was just as much fun in 2016 as it was in 1981. The Soul of a New Machine is about how hard work leads to creativity. It’s about being different. The men and women in this story have keen intellects, were often loners, and all had unique hobbies peculiar to engineers. It’s a story about people who can focus on one goal with such concentration that they almost forget everything else in life. Tracy Kidder tells an amazing story about amazing people in amazing detail. Yet, in 2017, why would anyone want to read about the design and engineering team that built a long forgotten minicomputer, or a company that went out of business, and was never legendary or insanely great? I doubt younger people even know the terms mainframe, minicomputers and microcomputers. Or care about a time when a business struggled to bring out a 32-bit computer to market when 16-bit was the standard.

All of that technical history doesn’t really matter. What matters are the people. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine makes me ask the question at the top of the essay. Most kids today daydream of growing up to be a star – whether in sports, movies, music, television. They want to be rich, famous, or some kind of superhero. If I was a kid reading this book, I’d want to grow up to be like Tracy Kidder, Tom West, Carl Asling, or any of the people in that group photo above, or the people profiled in the books at Goodreads. Most kids won’t become Beyoncé. I didn’t become Bill Gates. When I reread The Soul of a New Machine I experience a beautiful sense of regret. I lived through some of the most exciting times in technological history. I was in the stands watching, and that was great, it wasn’t the same as being on the field, but it was still very cool.


Artificial Intelligence Wants Us To Write Better

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 7, 2016

For weeks now, my computer has been nagging me to write clearer. I checked Google, and Microsoft has upgraded Office 2016 with two new tools for Word and Outlook: Editor and Researcher. In the past, I’ve thought of adding Grammarly to Office, but using the full version is rather pricey. I wonder if the new Editor feature in Word is meant to compete with it, or similar add-on grammar checking programs? It must be a bummer for little companies that create a business by patching cracks in big programs when those cracks are filled.


Anyway, the update feels like Microsoft fed my computer a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, the classic guide to clear writing. Word now bitches at me to simplify my sentences. Little red underlines and popups tell me the same thing my teachers used to write in red ink on my papers. This advice feels like a Deep Learning program studied all the works of Ernest Hemingway and now wants us to write like Papa. It’s hard on passive voice, wordy phrases, and unnecessary words. Words like “really” and “just” are superfluous. And they are, but I often use them to make my writing voice sound like my speaking voice. The AI in Word obviously thinks I sound dumb. Surely, it knows best.

When did AI minds decide clear writing in humans was needed? Did NSA computers ask Microsoft computer to help clean up our language? Spy programs would have an easier time tracking our opinions if we wrote precisely.

Do you take style and grammatical suggestions from your computer? We could tell it to shut the #@&% up. Don’t our grammatical quirks give us unique voices? Won’t Word convince all humans to sound alike? I wonder how many people around the world learn English just so they can go more places on the web? Will grammar checkers convince us all to write the same way? Maybe it’s not Microsoft, but the AI overlords. They want us to be more logical. We’re being evolved.


Agoraphobic Writing

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 17, 2016

Recent essays written for other sites:

In many ways I prefer writing for this blog, Auxiliary Memory, than writing for other sites. I’m somewhat agoraphobic, so I spend most of my time at home. And the older I get, the stronger that tendency becomes. Now those feelings are carrying over to my writing. I’m inclined to become a writing hermit, and just write for this blog. I like having all my thoughts in one cozy familiar place.


However, it’s mentally healthier for me to get out of my house and my blog. Sticking to my comfort zone can be debilitating.

Writing for Book Riot is interesting because I’m way out of my element. Most of their readers and writers are young, diverse, and I’m guessing, female. It’s a challenge to create something they will want to read – and I’m not sure I am. But I like the challenge. Trying to resonate with readers from other generations is educational, enlightening, and good for my literary agoraphobia.

Writing for the Classics of Science Fiction or Worlds Without End doesn’t take me far from home. I’m out of the house, but I’m only standing in my front yard next to the street. I created the Classics site with my friend Mike. And WWEnd is about science fiction and lists, matching my own quirkiness. Their readers I assume are SF/F/H bookworms and book collectors. Some are like me, old white guys remembering the science fiction we read growing up, but others are young, reading books and authors that are unknown to me.

I’ve always said blogging is piano practice for writing. But blogging tends to be cozy and comfortable. The more I remove myself from the story, struggling to write something objective and journalistic, the more I have to mentally push myself. I can actually sense a barrier. Age and ability has it’s limitations, and I often feel like I’m a fish in an aquarium scoping out the edges of an invisible force-field that holds me in.

Even though I want to push myself into new writing territory, I have to admit that I’m most comfortable writing about science fiction. It’s what I know. Whenever I write about something else, I have to do significant research – and that’s time consuming, requiring much mental effort, and psychic straining. It’s like weightlifting. I have to build up my muscles to handle the new load.

Whenever I read a magnificent work of nonfiction, I’m always impressed by the bibliography. That tells me how much work they did. Even when I write about other subjects I’ve been interested in all my life, I feel like I’m leaving the comforts of home. I assume everyone has a touch of agoraphobia about doing new things, but that might not be true. Are there people that are always willing to dive into unfamiliar waters?

Before my mother died, I got annoyed at her when she refused to leave her home, and it was obvious she couldn’t take care of herself. We tried to get her to live with us, but she refused. Nor would she consider assisted living. Now that I’m getting older I understand. I worry that I’m getting so attached to this house that I’ll never move again. I also think about just writing for my blog.

I figure I have another ten years to try new things, until I’m about 75. Because by then the urge to stay home will be too overwhelming – if it isn’t already.



Writing for BookRiot and Worlds Without End

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A couple months ago, Book Riot invited writers to submit two essays as part of an annual process for finding new contributors. I did. Then a few weeks ago I was told my essays were accepted in the next stage of that process. Since then, both have been published, and I’ve been invited to be a regular contributor. That’s very exciting because it’s validation for my retirement project.

Before I retired, I dreamed of writing science fiction because I’d finally have all the free time I needed. But after I retired I never got into the routine of writing fiction. Blogging has kept me busy for many years now, and I’ve learned to love writing essays. During my second year of retirement, I decided to switch goals from novelist to essayist. Since then, I’ve worked towards writing better essays. Blogging is self-publishing, and easy. I figured I needed to write for other sites, and assumed if other folks published my work, it would be proof my writing was improving. When John DeNardo invited me to write for SF Signal, it felt like I had taken a big step forward. Sadly, SF Signal closed its doors May 5th, after thirteen years of award winning work.

Fate brought the Book Riot opportunity just as SF Signal died. And then Dave Post at Worlds Without End asked me to write for them. I feel like I’ve taken a couple more big steps, and hope this means my work is still improving. Acceptance certainly pushes me to work harder. Maybe I need to start reading all those writing books I’ve bought years ago.

Here’s what I’ve written so far:

Writing essays is a great hobby for retirement. It keeps my mind fit, gives me a goal for the future, and reason to make each day count.



Writing For Other Sites and My Health

James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 28, 2016

I’m publishing less here because I’m publishing more elsewhere. That doesn’t mean I want to give up writing for my blog, but I do need to develop a plan for what’s best to post here. When I write about science fiction its obvious to give those essays to SF Signal, because science fiction is what they’re all about. Plus, they get more readers. And I’ve been accepted at a general book site, so now I can write about all the other books I’m reading for them. I’ll let you know what site that is when they publish my first essay and I have a link. They’ve accepted two essays so far. That leaves non-book subjects for me to write about here at Auxiliary Memory. I just need to find the time. My plan is to publish one blog post here each week. All told, that’s committing myself to writing eight essays a month. The ones I write here might be short, like this one.

I’ve been retired two-and-half years now, and writing essays has turned into my retirement hobby. That’s worked out very well because writing counteracts brain rust. I’ve noticed the longer I go without writing, the more trouble I have remembering words and pronouncing them. I’ve always called blogging piano practice for writing essays, well now I know it’s exercise for the mind too. I highly recommend blogging as a hobby, for the young or old. Writing over a 1,000 blog posts has really paid off.

Essay writing is turning out to be preventative medicine for dementia. Writing is showing me my physical and mental limitations. Because the newer essays require so much research, I’m having to push myself much harder, causing me to hit a wall each day. That’s an effective barometer of my mental and physical health. Each day takes more psychic management, and it’s all too obvious each birthday I pass leaves less creative energy. I doubt I’ll be able to do a fraction of what I’m doing now in my seventies. Getting old sucks, but that’s not news to anyone already old. It might be news to my friends who have yet to retired. Before I retired I thought all I needed was time. Well, at least I’m still learning new things.

I’m learning what it takes to do research, and that’s given me much greater respect for serious writers. It’s one thing to write an opinion piece, it takes several magnitudes more effort to include useful facts. Especially if you order them in some kind of coherent fashion.

I’ve had  two essays published at SF Signal in April. The first, “The Biographies of Philip K. Dick” is about the many books written about PKD. Duh! Titles are important. The second, “How Well-Read Are You in Science Fiction?” serves two purposes. First, it asks how many classic science fiction books do you have to read to feel like an expert. Second, it describes how to use the Worlds Without End’s database to catalog the science fiction books you’ve read, which then allows you to see how you stack up on more than fifty “Best SF/F/H Books” lists. Read the article if you want to learn how, it’s a lot of fun to use the WWEnd database. Here’s an illustration of how well I did with their “WWEnd Top Listed” list. It’s color coded. Blue and green are books read, with blue being favorites, yellow means the book is on my to-be-read list. Orange means I’m reading that book currently. Yeah, I’m embarrassed to let people know I’ve never read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson or Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – but I own both.


I don’t think I mentioned another article I wrote for SF Signal. Damn, I forget them as fast as I write them. But I do like plugging this Great Course. See “How Great Science Fiction Works – A Great Course in SF by Gary K. Wolfe.” If you love the history of science fiction, this is an excellent overview of the genre, and is only one credit at Audible.


Dear Noah Berlatsky;

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Noah, I wanted to drop you a line for writing an essay about one of my essays. I think this is the first time someone has ever written an essay about me. Unfortunately, it’s about the tempest in the teacup I caused over at SF Signal. I’ve found it quite educational to be publicly shamed by that incident, especially when it leaves readers believing things about me I don’t think are true. I am impressed with your essay because you come closer to attacking my thesis and not the false impression everyone got, although you do get caught up in that too.

Most people read the title, “The Cutting Edge of Science Fiction” and then looked at the list of books and assumed they were books I claimed were top science fiction books. They weren’t. You at least read the essay, though you put a narrow spin on it that I really didn’t intend. First off, my essay was saying the cutting edge of science fiction are those science fiction stories written after a scientific discovery that speculated on that discovery and before additional scientific discoveries would close down that speculation. It was never meant to be specific books. And the list of books I gave were never meant to be a list of great books, but only science fiction books that covered my sample subject: emerging AI.


Anyone familiar with science fiction should have known that list contained some awful books. They’d Rather Be Right is considered the worst novel to ever win the Hugo award, and no one reads it today. Vulcan’s Hammer is bottom of the barrel PKD. What I assumed is readers would know enough about AI to match real history with science fiction history. They’d Rather Be Right came out the same decade the discipline of artificial intelligence emerged as an academic subject.  The authors learned about AI, and speculated a very large computer could create artificial consciousness. That turned out to be wrong. In the sixties, after we started networking computers, Heinlein suggested network computers would lead to AI. All the books in that list reflected a writer using current ideas about computers to imagine how a self-aware artificial intelligence could emerge. Later on Robert Sawyer suggested the world wide web might spin off one. Or the movie Her, suggests the AI in smartphones will grow into an intelligent being. Actually, if you think about, very little of what I’m calling cutting edge science fiction does any big thinking. Only Richard Powers and David Gerrold actually tried to explore what it takes to program an AI, and their books are hardly read today.

Noah, your essay assumes I meant only gadget oriented stories could be science fiction. I didn’t mean that, but I can understand why you’d assume it. My sample was about computers, and you assumed all my samples would be about machines. You also assume I think science fiction is only about progress. I didn’t mean to imply that either. Science fiction can be about anything, but I do think SF is generally speculation coming between two time points. The first time point is when a new concept emerges. The second is when another concept comes around that squashes speculation that arose between the two points. One of your specialties is the history of Wonder Woman. I bet you have seen ideas emerged about her through the years that were later dismissed. My essay was only meant to suggest there is a cutting edge of speculation that moves through public awareness as ideas change. The “cutting edge of science fiction” was never meant to be specific books, or even specific kinds of ideas, just a time when science fiction speculates about specific ideas. I was also suggesting that writers had to keep up with such speculations because quite often they’re eventually shot down.

Noah, you suggest I should read more novels like those by Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. And I have—for over fifty years. Delany was my favorite writer back in the 1960s, and I often write about him here at my web site. Delany is still one of my top 3 SF writers.

Most of the attacks on essay claimed I didn’t know about women science fiction writers. This hurt because I’ve been paying attention to women writers in science fiction since I started reading the Judith Merrill annual anthologies of best SF back in the mid-1960s. This topic is not new. I’ve bought nearly every annual best of the year anthology for SF since 1965, so I’ve watched how the field has changed. I’m also a long time reader of fanzines, and I’ve read Locus Magazine off and on since it was published in New York City on plain white paper. The topic of women writing science fiction is not new, and I’ve read lots of science fiction written by women. Sad to say, I often like male writers more often than female writers , at least in science fiction. But in general literature, especially, literary works, I’m more partial to women writers. My current all-time favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. But I hold absolutely no store in the fact that it was written by a women. I love books, not writers.

But this brings up another problem. Even though my list wasn’t a list of great SF novels, I have to question the assertion that my attackers made that lists of books should contain a percentage of women writers. You mention the intrusion of the Sad Puppies into Hugo awards. I felt my attackers were demanding a political stance just like the Sad Puppies. If I ever make up a list of my favorite science fiction books I’m not going to consider the writer. I’ll only consider the books. Too many of my favorite books have been written by folks I wouldn’t have liked, so if I considered various aspects of who wrote the book it might cause all kinds of problems. I only love books. I really don’t care about the author. But there’s more at issue than that. I’m a bookworm and consider the books I love the most defining aspects about my personality. To be told I what my favorites should be is incredibly insulting. To me, that’s far more offensive than the Sad Puppies pushing their political agenda at the Hugos. It’s also embarrassing that people would think the list of books I used were my favorites. Some were very bad.

The thing about the reaction to my article that was so upsetting is everyone assumes I’m an old conservative. I consider myself an ultra-liberal and have been since the sixties, and hate the idea of being lumped in with conservatives. Basically, you and the commenters at SF Signal used a false characterization of me to promote your beliefs. No one took the time to even read the other essays I have at SF Signal. In an earlier essay, “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want To Hear” I begged audiobook producers to publish editions of books I loved so I could hear them. Ironically, that list included a book by one of the women writers who was attacking me in the comments for excluding women. Sure, even that list didn’t have 50-50 ratio of men to women writers, but it had a number of women writers. But even here, it was a personal list, and I think it’s unethical to tell people what to read based on political correctness.

Back to your essay Noah. I agree that science fiction is about more than technological progress. If I wrote my essay knowing what I know now, it would be very different. First off, I’m not going to include book lists in the future. The internet is full of people that make snap judgments about lists. Not every list of books is a list of great books. I also need to explain myself more explicitly, and clarify my statements better.

My editor said 11,000 people came to the article that afternoon. I don’t know how many read the essay the way the comments implied, or how many read it based on my intended assumptions. I don’t know if I can ever write any essay that will be read perfectly as I intend, but I obviously need to do better. I’ve taken up essay writing as my retirement hobby, and I know I need to improve, so this experience was a great writing lesson.

I’ve learned a lot from my public shaming, but not quite what my shamers expected. One thing I’ve learned is don’t write about people I don’t know, especially drawing conclusions about them from one essay. I don’t want do to any writer what I felt was done to me. I feel most of what people assumed about me is not true, and it’s disturbing to think that’s how some people do think of me.

Overall, I liked your essay “Why Cutting-Edge Sci-Fi Is Often Penned by Marginalized Writers.” It would have been better if it hadn’t been based on an attack on me, but just on your own thesis about writing and reading in general. By the way, I’m not a sci-fi writer—I wish. I’m only a blogger. I still stand by my statement: “Great science fiction explores the philosophical possibilities of science’s impact on reality.” Don’t you think that’s what Le Guin and Delany were doing in their books? I believe The Left Hand of Darkness does that perfectly. By the way, I’m currently rereading Dhalgren by listening to it, since it just came out on audio, and it meets my requirements too. Dhalgren is extremely cutting edge by my thesis, because it went way beyond the territory of traditional science fiction. You see Noah, I think the knowledge we gain from science covers more than just gadgets, and you and I might not be that far apart on what we want to label as the best of science fiction, by any label.


Fascinating Documentary About A Woman I Didn’t Know

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 27, 2016

My wife called and said she wanted me to watch a documentary with her. My wife hates documentaries. I love documentaries, and always beg my wife, and lady friends, to watch them with me. They won’t. They always say, “Let’s watch TV!” but they never mean documentaries. Or westerns. Anyway, I said sure. At least it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy. I’m still glad I agreed.

Do you know who Nora Ephron is? I didn’t. The name was oddly familiar, but I couldn’t put a face to the name, or a list of accomplishments. “Oh, you know, she did When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle,” why wife prompted. Uh-oh. Yeah, there’s a reason why I love documentaries. Anyway, I watched Everything is Copy, the new documentary on HBO about Nora Ephron. I was glad I did. Even though Ephron is famous for writing the kind of movies my wife watches over and over again while I do something else, her story was compelling. It turns out, Nora Ephron was an exceedingly fascinating a person. She was a writer, and one much loved by writers I love, and I love documentaries about writers, even ones I don’t read.

Nora Ephron HBO - Everything is Copy

I went to the library the next day and got two Nora Ephron books, I Remember Nothing and other Reflections and I Feel Bad About My Neck. I’ve read four essays so far, and I’m impressed. I was hoping for some of meanness that her friends talked about in the documentary. Unfortunately, no stealth barbs have shown up yet. I think I need to track down her magazine work from the 1970s, because she seems to have mellowed before she died. The show did say that.

Ephron had a long career, and for a while in the 1960s she was a journalist for the New York Post, learning the newspaper business. She was at the airport when The Beatles arrived in 1964, and broke the story about Bob Dylan getting married in 1966. Then wrote for Esquire and New York, mastering magazine writing during the legendary times in the 1970s that Tom Wolfe and Gail Sheehy wrote for them. Evidently, Ephron knew all the famous feminists back then, and wrote a column about women. Although Esquire is behind a pay wall, it does offer an audio version of “A Few Words About Breasts” from May, 1972—scroll down to see it. (I may have to subscribe to Esquire so I can read it’s back issues.)

Everything Is Copy covers Ephron’s early life, her Hollywood screenwriting parents, all her marriages, including the marriage to Carl Bernstein, her careers in New York City, her careers in Hollywood, and how she kept her fatal illness from all her many friends. Ephron’s story is mostly told by her older famous friends, or by younger famous friends reading her work, which only illustrates just how amazingly rich her life was. I’m sorry I wasn’t a fan from way back. Maybe I’ll even watch her movies, now that I have some background to understand them. (No promises, Susan.)

I don’t know if I should admit this, but I sometimes find biographies of successful women more fascinating than their work. I read three biographies of Louisa May Alcott before I read Little Women. And I’d rather read about Virginia Woolf than read her novels, even though I do admire her novels. Now that I think about it, there are male authors I’d rather read about than read. Aldous Huxley is one. Ephron was one of those writers whose life was far more exciting than her own stories, at least to me.

Anyway, this woman is going to always be famous for romantic movies that my wife loves, but I don’t. She actually deserves to be remembered for doing so much more. I’m sure most people know that. I didn’t. Sorry. I’m not knocking her movies, I’m just not her target audience. So, if you don’t like Ephron’s movies, I still highly recommend seeing Everything is Copy, especially if you’re the fan of documentaries like those on American Masters, the PBS series. And as documentaries go, it was very well written and filmed, the kind that’s intriguing even if you’re not interested in the subject itself.