The Story Behind the Book

I invented the iPod fifteen years before Apple, in my dorm room, frustrated with my wheezy Walkmen and skippy Discmen and their feeble inability to play more than a single album. A history major, I had no knowledge of electronics, design, or marketing, so my invention, the MemoryMachine-JoyDevice-Emototron had to wait for Apple to see the light of day. But the idea was exactly the same. More or less.

My first design would have been a few times larger than a full-rack component-stereo, as it had to hold 600 CDs in it. (Actually, not in it but sort of above and behind it, in an enormous twisting modular tube, like the habitrail of an atomic hamster). You would choose a song (from a bulging photo-album), then you would access that song by typing your request—into your Commodore 64 or Macintosh 512K—and that would somehow produce the song.

Portability was obviously the next challenge. So I went back to the drawing board (by which I mean bed) and came up with a new version no larger than your thumbnail, which communicated via radio waves back to the central unit in your dorm room, where an associate—a roommate—would, at your murmured request, dutifully type your next song into the Mac 512 for you.

Back in those halcyon days of limitless irresponsibility, (I recall now, listening to one of Apple’s tiny white knock-offs of the MemoryMachine-JoyDevice-Emototron), I could casually slaughter hours just listening to music, sometimes so excited by a new CD or an old LP that I could not leave the stereo’s side, could hardly sleep from, for example, the beauty of Chet Baker’s solo on “Moon and Sand” or the bass line of The Smiths’ “Barbarism Begins at Home.”

My official studies—medieval history—were neglected, slightly, for this commitment to more pertinent research, and I discovered that music was humanity’s only functional time machine, able to carry the devoted explorer forward and back across years, re-living old sorrows and walks and kisses and dreams, pre-living future triumphs and drives and kisses and memories.

The iPod is for me, as it might be for you, a very distracting device, since the 6805 songs I have lovingly inserted into it must be played with a certain care. Although one of its great pleasures is the shuffle mode (precisely what I dreamt of those decades ago), the shuffle mode also can hurtle me back in time in less time than it takes to hear a single measure of this or that over-potent song. 2008 and 1988 have a very porous boundary, apparently guarded by The Smiths, escorting me as I pick up my kids from kindergarten, escorting me to a party across campus.

And now my continuing research has revealed that music even functions as a meta-time-machine, a fantasy-rewinder. I can now (as a gentleman in my settled middle years) listen to “Barbarism Begins at Home,” and of course the song works in the past, future, and present (that bass line is still overwhelming); but it can also remind me of a past imagining a future that never occurred. I am brought back to that dorm-room where I can watch myself at 19 imagining myself at 39, and I can compare the two (very different) men: the one I expected and the one I became. Since I’m a novelist, I am always much more interested in the fellow I never was.

I can imagine a thousand versions of him, parting ways with me there on the dorm-room floor as “Barbarism Begins at Home” is played again, louder (drowning out the complaints of roommates). I went my one way, he went his thousand.

In one of those lives, he is alone by now. He is exhausted. He is just realizing that he may have made too many irreparable mistakes, lost too many unrecoverable treasures, wasted too many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. He is desperate to find someone or something to save him. And one night, listening to “Barbarism Begins at Home” on his iPod (the kind with videos – I only have the audio), he walks into a Brooklyn bar and sees a woman singing. She’s half his age. She’s beautiful.

And it occurs to me (listening to my iPod) that this could turn out to be a good story…