Diary of an 80s Computer Geek by Steven Howlett [Book Review]

Diary of an 80s computer geek contains the recollections of Steven Howlett, Spectrum owner and games programmer as he takes a personal look back at the early years of computing.

Diary of an 80s computer geek

On the face of it, I’m the ideal target market for this book and my background closely reflects that of Steven’s and I can share some of his memories. OK, so I owned the (obviously superior) Commodore 64, rather than a Spectrum, but apart from that my journey in the world of computers is pretty close to that of the author’s.

So, it’s something of a shame to have to report that whilst I didn’t hate this book, I wasn’t bowled over by it either. On the plus side, it’s highly readable; the informal, chatty style is entertaining and is well-suited to both the subject matter and overall tone of the book. There are times when the author lets his natural sense of humour shine through (a running joke about RAM is particularly good) and when this happens, the book is fun to read and at its strongest.

Where it feels weaker is in the relative lack of content and structure. The book itself is pretty short (100 pages long), which is no bad thing and makes it very readable, but you are sometimes left with the feeling that there’s not much substance to it. Whilst it’s an interesting enough account of Howlett’s experiences, it didn’t give me that blast of nostalgia I’m looking for when I read this kind of book. In fact, it felt more like I was reading a series of blog posts that had been artificially knitted together, rather than a “proper” book. Whilst the book is approximately chronological, there are significant chunks of time missing. It’s not a “diary” in the true sense of a contemporary chronicle, more a random set of recollections from Howlett’s gaming past.

It’s this slight sense of randomness that really prevented me from enjoying the book as much as I expected. The content seemed to jump around randomly, focussing on one element, and then flipping to another without any underlying theme to tie it all together. As a result, the whole thing felt somewhat disjointed, as though it was little more than a stream of consciousness, with the author recounting just the bits of his past that he could remember at any given moment in time.

It’s also a shame that there are some fairly obvious typos which really should have been picked up during the editing stage. These detract from the book and reinforce the overall feeling that its production was a slightly random thing rather than a carefully planned publication.

In the end, I found it hard to see exactly who this book is aimed at. For old retrogamers like me, there was nothing new and the sense of nostalgia wasn’t strong enough to keep me interested. More recent gamers won’t get enough context from the book to fully understand or appreciate why the 80s were such a magical time from a gamer’s perspective.

Perhaps in the end it’s precisely because the author’s experiences so closely match mine that is the issue? Whilst this shared experience should work in the book’s favour, it does also mean it has nothing really new to tell me. I wanted to like this book – I really did, but in the end, the best thing I can say about it is that I didn’t hate it. It just left me feeling “meh”.

On the plus side, my views are in the minority and the majority of Amazon reviews are far kinder. You can also pick up the Kindle edition for just 99p so you can make up your own mind without breaking the bank.

If you happen to read this post Steven, I’m really sorry – I wanted to like your book! On the plus side, at least I’ve spelt your name correctly!

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