Book Review: The Perfect Thing

Nov 11th, 2006 | By | Category: Digital Music, iPods & Portable Media Players, Reviews

The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness

Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness is a big, iPod-styled book that’s part thoughtful take on the history and impact of the iPod, and part unfortunate fanboy raving.

The Perfect Thing has benefited from the hype surrounding the iPod, and the publisher has tried to tap into that hype by printing four different “shuffles” of the book. While this may a useful gimmick for marketing the book, the idea is inconsequential to readers, because the book’s chapters are a collection of loosely connected essays.

Levy draws on the contacts that he’s developed as chief technology writer at Newsweek to dig into the stories behind the iPod. For example, the Origin chapter looks at the precursors to the iPod, and reveals how employees at Compaq developed a Personal Jukebox, a proto-iPod, years before Apple came out with a portable music player.

The chapter also looks at how Apple could almost thank Adobe for its wildly successful product. In 1999, Steve Jobs asked Adobe to port its popular video editing package to the Mac. Adobe refused, according to Jobs, which led Apple to develop their own digital media hub applications, which ultimately included iTunes.

At its best, Levy’s book does a great job introducing the people that brought the iPod to life and telling their stories.

Unfortunately, the book is weighed down by Levy’s tendency towards statements that are somewhere between hyperbole and fanboy talk.

Levy sets the tone in the Perfect chapter, calling the iPod “the most desirable new object of the twenty-first century. You could even make the case that it is the twenty-first century.”

Levy goes on to describe the iPod as “a universal object of desire, ” describes it as so sensual that it’s almost a crime against nature, and says that it “generates a portable alternative reality, almost always more pleasant than the real one.”

Levy also comes across as a little too taken with shuffle. “Shuffle turns out to be the techna franca of the digital era – not just a feature on a gadget, but an entire way of viewing the world.”

For the most part, Levy’s excess can be excused; some iPod fans may even relate. However, in one chapter, Identity, Levy’s obsession gets the best of him.

Levy starts the chapter off stating things like “Playlist is character” and that “exalted status comes from cool music libraries.” By the end of the chapter, though, he’s talking, a bit creepily, about exchanging playlists with an athletic blonde in her thirties, and revealing how the exchange gave him an “erotic charge.”

The Perfect Thing is an easy read and offers several well-researched chapters that reveal interesting histories of the development of the iPod. The book would have benefited, though, from a bit less raving and bit more critical analysis.

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