In the Beginning...Was the Command Line

Book cover image

The only positive thing I can say about this book is that Stephenson has a very fluid style. The ideas are interspersed with interesting anecdotes and chuckle-worthy jokes. But the ideas themselves are either (1) outdated (2) plain wrong (3) boring or (4) insufficiently worked out. An example for the first one is that Mac is hiding all its complexity behind a sugar-coated interface. This is not the case anymore, since Mac OS has been a great Unix for a long time. An example for (2) is Stephenson’s comparison of a powerful drill that is prone to lose control of and destroy your material with Unix. This is just nonsense. What distinguishes Unix was and has been the absolute control you can build on the whole system, suiting the OS to your needs and the machine’s needs. This is also the reason it is the most deployed operating system. An example to (3) is his whole account of how he went from the Mac to Windows to Linux, finding happiness and bliss with the last one. And what I totally missed is an example to (4): Why the heck isn’t there an explanation of the composability of the command line, the most important and distinguishing aspect of this mode of interaction? The command line is an extremely powerful programming environment, using which you can build very complex programs just by chaining together individual commands with the correct switches.

If you really want to understand the beauty and power of the command line and the Unix way, have a look at “The Art of Unix Programming” by Eric S. Raymond. It’s long, but worth the read, and you can go through the chapters individually.