Book Review: Steven Levy’s ‘The Perfect Thing’

Steven Levy’s ‘The Perfect Thing’

At times, Steven Levy’s tone in The Perfect Thing: How the iPod shuffles commerce, culture, and coolness winks and nods at the reader as many Apple-inspired blogs do: he’s one of us, and he’s intimate with the subject.

Levy’s voice makes The Perfect Thing a breeze to read, and not just because of the book’s modest lenght. In revealing the software, hardware, and philosophical origins of the most popular MP3 player on the planet, he easily makes the case for the iPod’s overwhelming popularity.

The structure of The Perfect Thing mimicks the iPod’s own control structure: each chapter (“Origin,” “Download, “Identity”) can be read in any order the reader prefers, thereby allowing a “shuffle” of available options. Even the book’s design copies the iPod!

Each chapter is a stand-alone essay, though for my own sake I liked reading the introductory chapter, “Perfect,” first. As Levy argues, many things combined to make this “perfect storm” device – whether it was the simplicity of iTunes to the idea of a hard-disk-managed music player – a dynamic combination of elements. The iPod couldn’t be what it is without each of its beautiful parts.

Levy, a Newsweek senior editor, has tackled Apple material before (and lost Apple material before), and throughout the book displays his chuminess with Apple brass. This familiarity lends to some great, first-hand stories that bring the iPod’s story to life, such as when Levy argues with Greg Joswiak, Apple’s iPod marketing director, over whether the “shuffle” playback option is indeed a true randomization of songs. “Look, I go through the same thing as you,” Joz says:

But I’ve checked with the engineers again, and it’s essentially random. They have checked and rechecked it.

Levy goes on to explain the rational for the iPod Shuffle’s launch, and how Apple configured iTunes to shuffle “more randomly” or “less randomly.” Levy still attributes the “breathtakingly perfect” shuffled songs to some “Hand of God” factor.

I picked up The Perfect Thing at a local bookstore mostly because it was on sale, but what I got was really a great discussion on the lack of adaptation by the music industry in the face of digital downloads (an issue we still talk about today), Steve Job’s passion to turn a crummy device into a work of art “for the rest of us,” and the passion people have for their music.

Levy is a righteous music fan himself, and gets why people can become so attached to a deck-of-card-sized portable jukebox. He’s even brave enough to swap playlists with others, a practice I call “What’s on your Top 25 Most Played?” The results, to Levy, are humbling when his musical tastes are described as “baby-boomer comfort food.”

Levy admits his iPod shows a “revelation of character” and the “means to a rich, personal narrative, navigated by click wheel.” That’s the magic of the iPod we don’t usually think about. He quotes Steve Jobs:

We don’t have to convince people that they love music. People know that already. So all we’re doing is reinventing the experience of enjoying music, because you have your whole music library with you.

Because that’s what makes the iPod “the perfect thing”: people want to hear their music their way, and Apple’s device makes that possible.

Levy goes back to tell the history of devices like the Sony Walkman, the original “perfect thing,” but says the “universally celebrated, endlessly pleasing, devilishly functional, drop-dead gorgeous design” is what separates the iPod from mere mortal music players. What’s sad is that Levy couldn’t have waited until the iPod Touch was released. But then perhaps not enough time has passed to accurately gauge its impact on the music/mobile web world. We’ll wait for the iPhone book that’s sure to come.

Now that a few years have passed since The Perfect Thing was released, you can probably pick it up for a decent price. And I recommend it highly. It’s a weekend read, at most, and every chapter is a gem in terms of Apple history.

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