So I'd like to end my blogging week by pointing to the first magazine story that really stuck with me, changed the way I thought about writing, blew my mind and all that (again, hat tip to Brian Doyle, who my wife and I just realized is the same Brian Doyle who wrote this piece we love about the heart of the hummingbird, Joyas Volardores). The story was published in Wired magazine. I'll get to the exact story in a second, after I explain why my mind, at the time I read it, was so ready to be blown by this story. I was sort of a nerd in high school. I mean, I ran a BBS. ("Bulletin Board System," for those of you pureblooded Internet children.) That's nerdy. I lived in the suburbs of southeast Pennsylvania and had a suburban PA kid's access to cool new Silicon Valley tech gizmos. I didn't know Lillian Ross from Hugo Boss. What I read for pleasure was MacUser, Newsweek, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Wired. Michael Wolff says that great magazines are aspirational; they create a world you want to be a part of but can never really be a part of. That was Wired for me. I wanted to be shiny and connected. I even loved the way the magazines looked and felt. Each Wired had a striped spine, alternating two slick saturated colors like a long thin chessboard, so if you stacked the magazines from floor to ceiling you got this very cool neon confetti effect.
So there I was, age 17, BBS proprietor, reporter at the school paper, Wired fan, paging through Wired 3.06 until I got to a story called The Curse of Xanadu by Gary Wolf. And stopped.
Wired billed the story as "amazing," "epic," "a saga." Magazines say these things all the time, but "The Curse of Xanadu" actually is epic and amazing. On the face of it, Wolf's story is about a failed piece of software and its troubled-genius designer, Ted Nelson. Nelson's software, which he dreamed up in 1964, was called Project Xanadu. It was a hypertext system, like the World Wide Web, except more sophisticated and more ambitious. The idea of Xanadu was to organize every document in the world. Wolf writes that one person involved with the project "marveled at the programmers' apparent belief that they could create 'in its entirety, a system that can store all the information in every form, present and future, for quadrillions of individuals over billions of years.'" According to Wolf, Xanadu's principals "began to believe they were helping human life evolve into an entirely new form."
Okay. We know what happens to utopians with such beliefs, especially if the leader of said utopians suffers from ADD, becomes briefly suicidal when the project gets delayed, and gives his team members cute names like "System Anarchist" and "Hacker" and "Accelerator" and "Hidden Variable" and "Speaker-to-Bankers." What's so cool about Wolf's story, which is as deeply reported and sharply written as anything in the New Yorker/Esquire canon, is that Wolf gets the culture and empathizes with the talent and ambition behind Xanadu ? at one point he suggests that Ted Nelson's digital-culture encyclopedia "Computer Lib" was a forerunner to Wired itself, the text that created the "popular audience for news about the digital revolution" that Wired would later exploit ? but he's also unsparing on Xanadu's folly, which Wolf suggests is not so unlike other forms of human folly. For one thing, the coders, an insular group, are betrayed by their own involuted vocabularies, their "constant stream of fresh jargon; the system was filled not just with berts and ernies, but also with 'flocks,' 'shepherds,' 'abrahams,' 'dybbuks,' and 'crums.'" Wolf points out that at every stage of Xanadu's failure, the coders always asked for six more months to pull it together. Just give us six more months: the cry of the righteously deluded. At one point, some coders working on Xanadu at a software company got so fed up that they literally "pull[ed] the plug," hauling their computers out of the office. Wolf writes, "Xanadu was like a defeated rebel whose corpse is destroyed in secret so as not to become a shrine."
And the end of the story. Holy god. I won't spoil it, but it contains these lines:
Gregory answered the door when I knocked. His dirty blue pants were unbuttoned and he was barefoot. A long-sleeve pinkish T-shirt dropped over his rounded midsection but stopped before it reached his pants.
This may not be the saddest thing you've ever read ? but still, pretty damn sad, yeah?
When I finished the story, I felt lightheaded. I hadn't realized that nonfiction could be this powerful. I think it was after that, post-Wolf, when I started reading more nonfiction, and started thinking that writing magazine articles would be a fun way to make a living.
Okay Powell's fans. Thanks again for reading along this week. I really enjoyed it.