I went somewhere strange last night. Somewhere drenched in half-decayed memory and loss, a twisting, shifting labyrinth. I picked up Breathing Machine: A Memoir Of Computers, by Leigh Alexander, an e-book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I thought I’d dip in and whirl through a chapter or two. I won’t say I couldn’t put it down, because I could have. I damn well didn’t want to put it down. Not because chapters end on cliffhangers (they don’t). Not because I wanted to see how the story ends. Not for any of the normal reasons a book holds my attention. I didn’t want to stop because reading Breathing Machine was like being given a pass to someone else’s mind, and inhaling the lurid technicolour and splatterhouse intensity that is held inside.
Breathing Machine: A Memoir Of Computers is a chaptered snapshot journey through the author’s young life, and its intertwining with early home computing. The first chapters do a singularly good job of describing the feeling of childhood mystery and adventure; a time when you didn’t think of adventure as “a cool thing you could have”, but a time when you didn’t conceive that you wouldn’t have adventures. Perfectly in step with this are Leigh’s early experiences with computers; the days of the command line, when spelling and syntax turned every interaction into an exercise in code-cracking. But experienced through the lens of childhood these restrictions – these faulty, crackpot processes – were only another adventure. Another mystery that could, that would be solved by the undoubting eyes of young Leigh.
From this beautifully strange and forgotten base, the book builds a rapid-fire series of chapters, each one inhabiting a time and a place unique to Leigh, and her interactions with the other fringe-figures of this early home-computer age. From buggy unfinished games to internet crushes to early internet shock sites, Breathing Machine leads you through a constantly compelling series of half-disconnected, half-forgotten events; fractions of a young life, and a certain time, glued together in memory and held there by the constant companionship of computing. These chapters never overstay their welcome; painting each picture in neon, before moving on. This is a book that never lets up the pace.
Most importantly – given the subject matter the book is describing – it perfectly captures the heady loss and beauty of the tiny chip of history it’s describing; a time and experience that will never happen again, never be possible again, briefly glimpsed in shutterframe frozen moments. This book is exactly what it professes to be, A Memoir Of Computers. It’s not a textbook or manual or work of fiction. It’s a memoir; something intensely personal.
Reading Breathing Machine was unexpectedly joyous for me, because it is exactly the kind of experience I crave: It is totally, unexpectedly new, and it’s good. It was easy to presume that because I use computers a lot, and because I grew up with them, that I kind of knew what I was getting. But for all that I have a partial resonance to this world, it is not a world I ever knew. It is fascinating and tragic, simultaneously showing you beautiful portraits, and breaking them apart. I read this book through a certain set of eyes. But this book would be no less fascinating for someone who grew up a handful of years later, who never knew the days of modem. This book would be no less fascinating for someone who knew the world before computers, or someone who has never paid any attention to computers at all. Because while this book is about computers by someone who grew up with them, it’s not written just to inform that select audience. It’s a memoir, remember, and a well written one; a fascinating chance to see someone else’s world.
In many ways, thinking back to last night’s solitary frenzy of reading, this book feels like archaeology; excavating relics of the past that are both fascinating and primitive to our advanced eyes. But unlike Roman pots or Saxon helmets, dead in the ground, here you have the ghosts of Leigh Alexander-past whispering to you as you dig. You are not simply seeing history, you are experiencing it.
Like most historical accounts, the majority of Breathing Machine isn’t trying to make a point. That’s someone else’s role, to come along afterwards and assign the rhymes and reasons and subtexts they think were present. Breathing Machine mostly just is. It inhabits this weird fragment of history and culture, and shoves you through it like a high speed house viewing. Perhaps this is what makes Breathing Machine feel so rare; it is a historical account of a time so close to my own, in a culture so close to my own, any yet it is not a history I ever knew. History, we are usually told, is things that happened Long Long Ago and Far Far Away, it is emperors and pharaohs, great events and titan figures. It is so easy to forget that history is also you, your parents, your neighbour, your co-worker. History didn’t happen Far Far Away, it happened two doors down from you. It still is. This the window that Breathing Machine gives, a brief glimpse of a totally unique life, as experienced through a certain lens, at a certain time. It is alien beauty and glimmers of sadness, fractures and visions, all held together by the guiding hand of Leigh Alexander’s evocative, impressionist style.