"A Catcher in the Rye for the Atari generation."*
Coming of Age in Cyberspace
David S. Bennahum
I just finished reading "Extra Life" (finishing at 4:00 am) and was fascinated by the grip your narrative had on me. The act of reading the book was similar to the all-night sessions we have all had when engrossed with our computers.
I'll have to admit I almost passed it up but was pulled in by the quality of the people who blurbed it. Douglas Rushkoff did a great job for us at a Mass Media and Popular Culture conference we held last fall and I trust his instincts.
I checked out the web site for the book and saw all the letters by readers who had the same experience I did. You touched something very deep in a lot of us.
As an educator I am particularly fascinated by a problem we all have with recognizing the value of changes that take place after our time - only the negative aspects seem to be crystal clear to us. So, while you spend the first part of the book giving us a good reflection of how people didn't understand the positive implications of arcade games, time-shared computing, the internet, etc., in the last part of the book you express the loss we feel when the new thing comes along to replace what we loved. It will take someone younger than both of us to write the book that will show the positive aspects of the "new breed of machine" that "spawned a new curriculum that taught them how to use software."
Thanks for a long, sleepless night,
Subject: Extra Life
I have been reading your book Extra Life and I wanted to let you know I love it very much.
I remember the early days of the home computer, slaving away on my old VIC20 and Commodore 64. I remember when a computer magazine was prized not on its columns but on the quality of code contained on the pages in between it's glossy covers. Reading your book brought back a magical time in my life. I was just another youth playing with what at the time seemed a curious toy, yet was a tool that would shape our future as a culture.
Looking back I cherish the innocence of a young mind and a new toy and admire the sophistication of an intellect to explore a new world. Thank you for a trip back to yesterday in an honest and enjoyable manner. Your book I have recommended to my friends who also share similar pasts and innocence.
From: Michael B. Johnson
Subject: Extra Life
Hi David. Wonderful book! Just finished it. Funny how many of your experiences evoke memories of similar things in my life....
Anyway, thanks for sharing your story - it was a great read.
From: Brad Hoover
Subject: A Wonderful Book
I received your book for Christmas and just finished it last night. I enjoyed it more than you can imagine.
I'm eighteen and I just finished my computer science courses last year (a semester in BASIC and a semester in C++). You articulated the feelings I had (and still have) for programming. I was lucky enough to have a shared programming environment on a VAX. Growing up with a my own PC, this was a completely different feeling -- working with others doing things I would only normally do by myself. Also not being a math- minded person, programming gave more abstract math concepts a purpose.
I'm going away to school next year which means my mother, who doesn't even like to touch the computer, will have to learn to do many things that I have done for her in the past. Before I try to teach her how to do anything, I going to make her read your book. For me, the book helped me have a deeper appreciation for the "spirituality" of working with the machine. For my mom, I hope it will at least make her more comfortable. (Maybe now she will touch it with out shaking)
From: Todd Osborne
Subject: Extra Life
Just wanted to drop you a quick note to tell you how much I enjoyed Extra Life. I can honestly say it is the first book I have completely read in many, many years. And I read it in 3 days :)
I came from a similar background as yours. While I am a year younger than you, I started with computers a couple of years before you and found my nirvana in Timex Sinclairs and Commodore VIC-20's. I skipped the gaming phase, which never really interested me much, and always stuck to figuring out how these things worked by writing assembly and rough BASIC code. I wish I had the PDP experience you talk about in your book, and am looking to buy one now. I am a collector of these old computers, owning about 40 of them (Commodores, Timex's, IBM's, ATARI's) and would love to add a PDP-11 to the group, and to save it from the scrapyard.
I learned of your book on ZDTV's PageView, and only cuaght the trailing end of the review. I immediately went to Amazon.com and ordered. That was less than a week ago :)
I read (the first few hundred pages) a lot of books, mostly reference's on Solaris, Windows NT and UNIX. Deep C++ which helps me to develop the code I write today. I dropped out of computers in 1985 when my family was uprooted to Charlotte, NC, not totally unlike the way you moved around. I then got into drugs and other evils until 1989 when I decided to grow up. Opposite from you, I did computers first, lost interest, did drugs, and then somehow managed to get back on track.
I found your book 100% pure excellence. The way you weave high technology with the realities of the times and growing up in the 70's and 80's. I have often thought that writing such a book would be terrific fun, but who would read it? I doubt I could ever write such an engrossing and entertaining book about myself the way you did with Extra Life. You succeeded in making an autobiography read more like a combination of a novel and reference manual.
Thank you again for such a great book, and I wish you and your family well in the coming year.
From: Nicholson, Drew
Subject: Extra Life
I've read the book twice, and still cannot shake the newfound memories of sitting in front of my Atari 400 and then 130 typing in page after page of code from those old magazines... thanks for helping me find them again...
From: Muki Haklay
Subject: Extra life.
I just want to thank you for writing "Extra life". I loved it, and it made a lot of sense for me and provided some explanations for "How I got here?". Your book provoked many thought that was there in the background and I never tried to organize them in any way.
I was also surprised by the similarity of experiences even though I grow up in a different context and place.
For me, it was one of the best books I ever read.
From: Shane Sigler
A friend gave me a copy of Extra Life that I just finished. It was a fantastic book, brought back a million memories, some good, some not so good. Definitely fun though.
It was funny to think that you were on the east coast thinking what cool things the folks on the west coast must have to play with but you definitely had the better computers to play with in school. Our class in 7th/8th grade was mostly Commodore Pet's with a few TRS80s and like 2 Apple IIs. Fortunately my best friend had an Apple II+ that we used to play around on.
I would have to say your description of interviewing at Microsoft made me laugh out loud!
Thanks for a great book,
From: Mike Culbertson
Subject: Just finished your book...
I just finished your book and must say I really liked it. It was a lot more interesting than the run-of-the-mill Generation X whine-fest. I really associated well with your story even though I never got to use a PDP and my first time share account came in 1989, when I went to college. I'm a bit younger than you, and grew up in the era of Apple's computers for education pogrom. It was really interesting to hear your tale of that kind of an environment.
There was only one teensy-weensy problem I had with it. We both know that there is no such thing as a 5-sided die in D&D. Despite my grave reservations brought on by this factual error, I recommended this book to all of my friends, just in time for Christmas.
Good luck with the book. Hope you make many Zorkmids from it.
From: Elizabeth Olson
Subject: extra life
It's unfortunate I didn't make it to your readings in San Francisco or San Jose. I would have liked to.
I've been on the MEME list for a little while, and read your book. I just wanted to send you a note of appreciation. I found it enthralling - it reminded me of what I _knew_ I was missing out on when I first started messing with computers, that there truly _was_ a secret brotherhood, which I never quite managed to find or penetrate. Perhaps I was just a few years too late. These days I'm a Network Engineer - I make it go. But it kind of saddens me that I've never really been in a situation to dig into a computer to it's component bits, to understand things from so base a level.
Anyway, thanks for a great read, and a bit of insight...
Subject: a short message regarding your book
I just wanted to let you know that I think your book is fantastic. I was
born in 1979 and I attended a private grade school for "gifted" (yech) kids.
They attempted to teach us how to program in basic and gave us games to play
like "Logo". Anyways, although I am a little younger than you, your book took
me back to the days when they would lead all of us eight year olds in a single
file line to the computer "cage". They would unlock the door and sit us down
at the computers and let us go wild with LOGO. I tried it a bit, but I was
distracted by the Apple poster that hung in there that showed floppy disks as
spaceships blasting away at asteroids because I was an Atari 2600 freak at the
time. Your book just brings back many good memories. It also motivates me to
write which is the true indicator that I really enjoyed it. Thanks for
writing it. I just wanted to let you know that those of us who were just
begining to go to school at the very end of the computer boom enjoy it too.
Subject: About your book
I just finished your book Extra Life and found it quite captivating.
I was born in 1960 and raised in a small eastern Kansas town and so my
experiences were a bit different from yours, but I still experienced the
computer revolution in Ottawa.
The great thing about Ottawa, KS. was the fact that we had a small liberal
arts college. When I was in high school I took a typing course thanks to some
advice I got from Robert Heinlein at the 1976 SF World Con. Although the
instructor thought it was strange that a man wold take a typing course, she
was impressed enough with my skills to get me into computer courses at Ottawa
After graduating from high school I attended college at Ottawa University and
had fun in the computer department. Remember the Osborn Portables? How about
the PC Peanut?
I've have some great experiences with fellow techies in the KC Metro Area and
its amazing how computers and science fiction have given me many friends.
The first computer I owned was a Commodore 64 that left me unimpressed with
computers. Then when I got a job at the Kansas Union Bookstore and started
using a Mac SE 30 Plus, I got back into computers and then went out to buy a
Mac Classic. I currently own a Mac Clone and am saving up for a G3 PowerBook.
My roommate has an iMac, her first computer, and just loves it.
So thanks for the delightful memoir. I think I've sound a Christmas present
From: Richard R. Greiling
Subject: Extra Life
To: David Bennahum
I want to commend you for your new book, "Extra Life." I read it in three
sittings which, considering the fact that I am not currently on vacation,
constitutes high praise. I had hoped to attend your reading last night in
Seattle, but a scheduling conflict got in the way. But through
asynchronous life, perhaps I can say what I would have said in person.
First of all, I am a subscriber to "MEME", so I expected some good insights
from your book. Second, I am an avid reader of "WIRED", so I expected
well-crafted writing. Both expectations were met abundantly.
I particularly enjoyed your point that personal computers have become less
approachable and more opaque as they have been developed for the mass
market. I suppose that was inevitable. (My theory is that a truly
successful consumer product cannot have more than a certain number of
buttons and a computer really pushes the limits with its
multifunctionality. I wonder how they deal with this at Sony.) My own
history with computers starts in the mainframe days -- thankfully this side
of the era of punch cards -- and I now own a small company which designs
and develops business software. (My wife and I say that there are really
only three jobs in Seattle: you build airplanes, make lattes, or write
software.) I too have expreienced that distancing from "how it works". We
have two standard comments at work when we solve, on our own, some
particularly annoying Windows problem: "How do mere mortals do it?" and
"Thanks, Bill." I hope Microsoft is able to achieve their objective of
simplification and ease of use without making the computer even more
From: Jerry Poncin
Subject: extra life
Man, I am through about half your book and its like you wrote about my life. I
was an atarian. It were the pioneers of computing. Innocence lost now, but
every discovery you made I also made. I am younger than you are by about 3
years, but I got my first computer an atari 400 when I was 9. I had a BBS when
I was 12. Computers were so easy to figure out then. Its a lot more complex
now. I didnt turn on a computer for about 6 years. Now i am grown up and have
not a clue. We had a bbs called Chernobyl, circa about 1985. About the time
when atari started to falter. Man, the first 3 pages of your book gave me
goosebumps, its just awesome. I hope you sell tons...I wish I would have
written it, you know what we went through. Thumbs up, you didnt miss a beat,
except for the phreaking and all that crap. I just want to say good book and
thanks for writing it.
Handle from atari world : Deek Martin
From: Heidi H. Tandy
Subject: just finished your book.....
And now I know why all the boys were never happy when I tried to get
time on the computers.
What a treat it was to read - like a little history of Computers I've Known
and Loved - I got my first computer (PONG) back in I guess '78, but had a
2XL which ran off of 8-track tapes at about the same time, got to use
one in school for the first time in 4th grade ('79), got my Atari 800 in 81
and my Apple in 82, and still proudly posess my Microsoft Word disks (2
of 'em, that contained the whole program) from '88, and every floppy disk
(big & small) where I saved my school papers, my bat mitzvah speech,
letters I wrote to friends, etc., going back to 81.
Were my favorite games ever big up in NYC? I fondly remember
something called either Ali Baba or Aladin, and another text AND
graphics game called Sherwood Forrest, but no longer have either,
unfortunately. Not that I could play them, since they're AppleII, but a girl
The problem with being a girl & into playing on computers was that no one
ever told me about (a) magazines which had info on how to code, how
to dial into BBS's, and all that other neat stuff, and (b) none of the boys
were ever willing to explain or even DISCUSS any of it with me.
You don't know how lucky you were being in NYC - growing up on Miami
Beach, the only magazine stores were in hotels, and being a local, we
*never* went in *those* - we didn't have any electronics stores, except
for 84-85, when the Mac shop on 41st street was open- and I worked
there so I knew exactly how little they had - of course, at that time, I
thought it was a lot.
You're probably right about one other thing -the kids 2-3 years younger
than you, like I am, had fewer opportunities to get "inside" the machines,
at least once we got to junior high school (and in 4th -6th grade it's not
like we were allowed to sit down at them for more than a few minutes a
Anyhow- looking forward to reading more....
heidi howard tandy
From: Adam Rosen
Subject: Borders LA reading
I enjoyed your reading tonight. Thank you for signing my book.
When I read your WIRED piece, it brought back a lot of memories, and helped
to crystallize a lot of things I have been thinking about lately. I thought
I would share with you why I'm looking forward to reading the book...
I, like you, bought my first computer with my Bar Mitzvah money. I got a TI
99-4/A (in retrospect, I think TI had about as much business making
computers as they did making digital watches in the '70s) at 47th Street
Photo in Manhattan. The machine had some great games, but I was really into
programming. I had a bunch of Recoton cassette tapes filled with my
creations. I eventually upgraded to a Franklin ACE (an Apple II+ clone) in
After I finished college, I journeyed to LA and worked in film and
television production. That business is one of the more antiquated,
technologically-challenged industries out there (not including the realm of
post-production visual effects). Consequently, I didn't really use a
computer for anything for about five years.
Finally, in 1996, I bought a new Mac, for the dual purposes of getting
online and learning to program again, this time in HTML and C++. What I was
hoping to recapture was the excitement I recalled from the early days - what
you wrote about in your book. What I was missing in my job was the
problem-solving...the exploring...and I thought I might find the computer as
an outlet for turning on the part of my brain again.
After 6 years in the biz, I decided to go back to school for an MBA as a way
to make a career change. In business school you are given a lot of
assessment tests designed to help you figure out what to do with your life.
This is why I was so excited when I read your WIRED article. When people
asked me what I really wanted to do for a career, I would tell them that I
wanted a job that gave me the satisfaction I used to get from the computer
in those early days. I think you said it well during your reading, when you
talked about the "visceral" feeling we had back then - no fear, just a
passion for learning, and an understanding that trial and error was the best
way to do it.
This summer, between my 1st and 2nd years in school, I worked as a Product
Manager for a software company. My biggest hurdle during interviews is
trying to explain to the Human Resources people to whom I'm speaking that,
although I don't have an engineering degree, I can relate to the coders. I
think if these HR people read your book and understood how our generation
relates to technology, they might understand what I'm trying to explain to
them. I must tell you it's a tough sell. I am hoping that one of these days
my interviewer will be a fellow early-'80s computer geek who can understand
how that early computer literacy relates to a type of intellectual curiosity
and willingness to iteratively tackle problems - to "dive right in" to
things without reading the manual.
These are things I've been thinking about a lot as they relate to my career
choices, so I am anxious to read your book and see if it will help me to
better articulate what I learned in those early days on the computer.
Thanks again and best of luck on your book tour,
From: Charis Papavassilis
To: "David S. Bennahum"
Subject: Re: [tiny]MEME: Extra Life tour rolls on...
Dear David Bennahum,
thank you very much for writing Extra Life and brnging back to life a time
that I have experienced in a very similar way in many aspects. Not in all,
though, no dope for example, but still enough to give a deja vu. I almost
had to cry when I read about the Elephant Memory Systems sticker on your
Atari. I have an ad posted to the wall at my parents' with EMS written on
it- and "Elephant Never Forgets" below. That is probably the most
ingenious name for a floppy company, and it is a petty that they are
forgotten. These details show that you know what you are writing about and
remind me of the countless evenings and nights spent with my ZX Spectrum,
and the wonderful computer class in our school. One thing that was
different in my experience was that pupils were clearly superior to our
teachers in programming skills. This was a new experience and showed to us
that it is the mind that matters, not just age or something.
Greetings from Germany, and I hope your reading tour continues well,
best regards, Charis Papavassilis
Subject: Extra Life -- a reader's comments
From: Justin Mason
I've just finished it, since receiving it yesterday morning, and I was amazed
by how much it meshed with my own experience! I'd forgotten all about the
hours I'd spent as a teenager myself, poring through mags like _Compute!_ and
some of the UK mags like _Personal Computer World_, learning techniques from
the articles and directly from the listings themselves, as well gaining my
first experience of porting code as I tried to convert some of the listings
from TRS-80 or Atari to the Commodore VIC-20 or the C-64.
From: Josh Klein
Subject: Extra Life...yadda yadda
I read your book, in under two days. That says a lot. I usually read book a relatively slow pace, however the book just flowed and flowed. Very nicely done. Myself I am 21, and still at college but I was able to relate with just about everything you had in your book, the bar mitzvah, the influences in NYC growing up as a child and so forth. I am going to give this book to my mom, perhaps she'll understand me better. THANKS.
A side note I thought you might get a kick out of this but I am enrolled in a "DATA STRUCTURES" class here at the University of Hartford (I'm a Computer Science and Professional/Technical Writing Major, whew!) and I mentioned that you said that you were able to do pointers, and all of those funky data types needed for the dreaded binary search trees in basic. I mentioned that and now I'm getting extra credit just for doing "OUTSIDE RESEARCH" WHOA!
I'm a subscriber of your MEME zine, and loved the book. It really opened my eyes on the programming that I do. THANKS.
Loved the book again..
From: John Bean
Subject: Extra Life
Your book caught my interest at the store this evenging and after briefly
perusing it, I bought it and came home and read it - cover to cover. I was
born in 1969 and started "playing" with a TRS-80 in 1978. I had a
multitude of other home computers growing up; TI-994a, VIC-20, Commodore
64, IBM PC and friends with lots of other computers, modems, speech
synthesizers, etc... Anyway, just wanted to tell you that I related to
your book and it brought back some fond memories. Thanks!
Subject: Your book was great!!!
Greetings, I have recently purchased your book (actually 3 days ago), and read
it straight through. I loved the parts about when you were in High School, and
you were a student of Mr.Moarn, and he had you use that computer without a
monitor that ran on a switched, and I was wondering, if you when you used it
felt reality gaps between you and the computer since you were so close to the
processor? I was also wondering if you ever got a chance to play Adventure?
Even though I am only 13, I still am addicted to text based games and muds.
They allow the users to imagine the places you are, and live another life. The
last thing I was wondering is if you ever met up with Mr.Moarn after high
school, and if he still teaches the same way he taugh you and the other
From: Digrado, John
Subject: Extra Archetype
Just finished reading over everyone else's response to your book; I find it particularly striking that we have all had so many similar experiences with computers - so much so that they drive many of us to describe our first computer experience in such detail. It seems that we remember these experiences, cherish them and describe them in much the same way one would describe a first intimate moment; where we were, who we were, as though frozen in time, so powerful and so fondly revisited.
These reactions to your experiences are proof positive of the power and impact these machines have had upon our lives, both personally and socially. I, too, have had many similar experiences to yours and to those of the people who have responded to your book in such a profoundly personal way. What those experiences are exactly is not of particular interest, however, as all good writing should do, we see ourselves in your reflection and memoir of a simpler time and feel a connection to the writing that leads us to say "That's ME!"
Perhaps "Extra Life" can't be considered a universal archetype, but I don't think it's meant to be. And for that I enjoyed the book all the more. Thanks for "Life", for your work in WIRED and MEME, and most of all, for bringing back all the memories.
READERS COMMENTS ON EXTRA LIFE EXCERPT IN WIRED (SEPTEMBER 1998)
--Robert G. Levy