The Computer That Ate My Brother
Our scientific investigations occasionally take us to garage sales in search of raw materials. This shouldn't be much of a surprise to our loyal readership. We are, after all, the cheapskates who figured out the way to buy the cheapest condoms and who rely on one night of door-to-door begging to provide our yearly supply of food.
On one recent trip we came across a book bursting with such retro-geek insouciance that we couldn't resist its allure. Maintaining a poker face not to divulge our keen interest, we negotiated the price down to $.25 and made off with our loot to our labs for further investigation. There, we had the chance to sit down and read the back cover:
The back cover only deepened our thrill of discovery, but it raised more questions than answers. First, we wanted to know what influence this book had over the last 27 years. The book has only a truncated Wiki entry. It was first published in hard cover in 1985:
It was even published in French:
A Sinhala Language edition also appeared, but we couldn't dig up that cover online. (Sri Lankan readers, please let us know if you do!)
The book also spawned a series of follow-ons, including The Valentine That Ate My Teacher, The Christmas Tree That Ate My Mother, and The Jack-O'-Lantern That Ate My Brother. The others don't appear to have been translated, but with imaginative titles like those, we thought it safe to attribute that to French provincialism rather than any lack of literary merit.
Amazon was kind enough to provide a snippet of a review from Kathleen Brachmann, Highland Park Public Library, Ill., though, which dampened our expectations a bit:
Harry's whiny, self-pitying narrative soon becomes annoying. Other characters are thinly drawn. The plot moves quickly enough, and there are some wonderful flashes of humor, but as a whole the book is marred by Roger's totally unrealistic transformation and by the hokey and unrealistic "release of power" between Harry and the computer.
Was this going to be another disappointing life lesson to never judge a book by its cover? Was the evocative imagery that caught our attention so completely at the garage sale just another cheap come-on that would ultimately result in nothing more than a letdown? Will we be filled with that empty feeling of loss and remorse to which we've grown so accustomed over the years?
Unfortunately, yes. To sum up the book, Harry is neurotic and creepy, the book makes no sense whatsoever, and (spolier alert!!!) the ending is nothing but corny and whitewashed.
Here is some of Harry's internal dialogue (p. 14):
When my Dad is on his deathbed, he will turn to me and say, "Harry, I'm sorry I didn't get you a voice synthesizer."
I will say, "But I didn't want a voice synthesizer."
Dad will say, "I know you really did and that's why it's so nice of you to say you didn't want one. I've been an awful father."
Later, at the behest of the computer, he goes to visit its original owner. As this little old lady goes to fetch him some cherry pie and peppermint tea, Harry wonders (p. 54):
Suddenly I got really nervous. What if she had gone to get a gun and was planning to blow my head off? Could I wrestle a knife away from her?
Our memories of the 80s are bittersweet, to be sure, but they don't include a lot of old ladies randomly murdering 12 year-olds...
If you are curious about the source of this disturbingly morbid inner life, apparently it came from his mother (p. 86):
"I just wonder," she said, "whether we are doing the right thing. Well," she sighed, "we're either doing the right thing or the wrong thing. We either live or die."
Further Investigations - Price Comparison
Once it became clear that we weren't, on any level, going to enjoy reading this book, terror struck in. How were we going to turn this $.25 investment into something worthwhile?
The first thing that struck us was the price printed on the book: $2.50. This edition was published in 1987. Using the inflation calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we see how that translate to $5.01 in today's money:
So, pretty much, mass-market paperback books for kids cost now about what they cost then. For comparison, a typical paperback Magic Tree House book lists for $4.99.
Reading the Book Online
We wondered whether it would be possible to read this book online. It was clear from a cursory reading that this book would never be republished anywhere, ever. But in 100 or 200 years, when these cheap paperbacks have disintegrated to dust, will the grad students writing their dissertations on WarGames as an example of pre-post-post-post modern angst be able to read this piece of period literature for themselves?
The first place we checked was Google Books. The good news is that they have the book completely scanned. The bad news is that you can only read a few chapters online. Of course, this book is still under copyright, and based on current law, will probably be so more than 70 years from now, since the author is still alive. But there's no way to buy or access Google's digital scan. It's searchable, but if you want a copy of the book, you have to buy a used one.
However, we were able to download a complete digital version of the book from OpenLibrary.org. They had several options; a error-rich text-only version based on an un-edited OCR scan as well as a fully DRMed PDF file via Adobe Digital Editions. Not an ideal situation, but still we were able to download, free of charge, a full copy of the book. It was only for a two week loan, though, and if the book developed any type of interest, the two copies would never satisfy demand. That is, of course, with digital loans of library books. A physical-book paradigm prevails which limits access unnecessarily.
We're glad to see that our literary and cultural heritage is secure in the virtual (and physical) vaults of Archive.org and Google.com, though it's obvious that publishers need to work harder to make these long-out-of-print titles available for people who want to read them. Whether it's through charging a nominal fee or simply making such books available for free, we need to move forward to rationalize a currently irrational system. It would be to *everyone's* benefit; publishers and readers alike. Even used bookstores would probably benefit as more interest is generated for long-forgotten titles.
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