The Perfect Thing

My first reaction was to hate it.

Actually, no. My first reaction was what a cute, almost-square book. My second was to hate it. It’s only a few pages into it and Levy is already discussing his great taste in music and disparaging mine (“… a pathetic Pet Shop Boys tune, the sort of thing that Nick Hornby would listen to on a bad day.”)

It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. But — step back — what was I expecting? Well, the blurb on the back tells you that you can learn how the iPod became the defining object of the 21st century. Having read most of Steven Levy‘s previous books, the obvious point of comparison was “Insanely Great,” the story of the Macintosh. But while the Mac took several years to put together, the iPod took only around six months. In hindsight maybe it’s pretty obvious that it’s not all the trials and tribulations of putting the machine together.

So what is it? In some ways this is the technology version of Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel.” It doesn’t so much talk about the making of the iPod as discuss the experience of owning and using one.

For example, one chapter is on the idea of “shuffle” and how people use it and attach super-human abilities to its ability to select the most appropriate mixes while theoretically being entirely random. Even when he talks about the design it’s more along the lines of how it makes people feel. One interesting observation was that when people speak about the iPod, they invariably reach into their bag or pocket to retrieve their machine and start touching it, pressing the controls, polishing the screen. How many other gadgets evoke this kind of sentimental reaction?

Certainly much mirrors my own experience. I remember sitting on the tube on the way home from Tottenham Court Road after buying a first generation iPod, the tiny cube1 that it was packaged in sat on my knee, and thinking, “I can’t believe I just spent ?350 on a Walkman.”2 Yet when I got home and started using it, any doubt vanished and quickly it became my most prized gadget.

In fact, as I type this my fifth generation iPod is on the blink. The emotional impact of this neat pile of components being on the verge of failing is quite unlike almost any other gadget I own.

Anyway, I was writing about the book “The Perfect Thing” and not my own experience, so let’s get back to the point. If you’ve ever read any other Levy books (or his column in Newsweek) you’ll know that he has an easy, engaging style and this book is no different. He covers all the bases, touching on everything from the design to downloading music from the Internet (and the fun that Apple had making iTunes) to Podcasts.

Given that it’s more about the experience of owning an iPod the fact that it’s already dated — there’s no mention of the iPhone, the Touch or the current range of Nano’s — is less of an issue than I initially expected.

Overall it’s much more of a “fluff” piece than most of his other books, but that does not make it any less entertaining or complete. Worth a read, just not as highly recommended as “Crypto” or “Insanely Great.”

  1. I suppose 2001 was when the G4 cube still held the promise of being successful. []
  2. In fact I was lucky to get away with that. A number of shops, having just one machine left, wanted to charge me more that list price. I knew I wanted one but not that much. []