[2020-12-31] “Unix”

As its sub-title indicates, “Unix” is a book by Brian Kernighan that tells the story of the evolution of the Unix operating system at Bell Labs and beyond. The author was a part of the small and extremely talented group at the hallowed Bell Labs that used and developed what came to be known as Unix. This perspective of the author and their excellent writing skills that has been repeatedly demonstrated via several great books makes this a must-read book for any student of Computer History.

I must admit that I found the book a gripping read and finished it within a day. I am a fan of both the Unix operating system as well as the writing-style of the author, besides also being interested in Computer History, so this was to be expected. Even if this were not the case, the book is peppered with nice anecdotes, interesting biographical notes, and several previously-unseen pictures that make this an interesting read.

If you are interested in one or more of Unix, Bell Labs, Computer History, and innovation, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It shows what a small group of talented and movitated engineers with minimal and benevolent managerial oversight can accomplish. Of course, being in the right place at the right time also mattered somewhat to their success, but only somewhat – it is quite evident that this group comprised brilliant engineers with good taste and a knack for writing clear and concise documentation.

The history of Unix has been told by many people over the years with various levels of detail. You can piece together some of this history via resources like this paper by Dennis Ritchie, this interview of Ken Thompson, this interview of the author in a podcast, etc. However, it is really nice to see it all (and more) in a single place and presented in a relatively-accessible manner.

That brings me to my primary criticism of this book – it papers over far too many details in order to appeal to a much wider audience than programmers. In this process, it only provides teasers that one must follow through elsewhere to gain more insights. That said, there are lots of other details that would probably confuse non-programmers, so it might have been better on the whole to somewhat restrict its audience to programmers.

Another frustrating aspect was that both the author and their key collaborators are far too modest. It cannot possibly be the case that a bunch of good-for-nothing programmers got lucky while goofing around and somehow ended up at Bell Labs that was home to several key inventions, authors of several impactful books, and an impressive number of Nobel-laureates. For example, neither this book nor the interview of Ken Thompson by the author (noted above) shed any light on why Bell Labs would go to such great lengths to try and recruit Ken. Maybe another book will fill this void at some point.

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