Sun, Oct 22, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Style geek worships the ultimate icon of cool

As one might expect, the iPod gets superstar treatment in 'The Perfect Thing' for being, well, perfect

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

THE PERFECT THING: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness
By Steven Levy
248 pages
Simon & Schuster

Steven Levy, the author of The Perfect Thing, is madly in love. So what if the object of his affections is inanimate and very, very petite? It makes great company and is fun to fondle. It makes him feel good and bolsters his self-confidence. And size is no problem: The more it shrinks, the more “adorable” it becomes.

Levy is also acutely image conscious about his taste in music. He may be a baby boomer (he refers to top record-company executives as “nasty cats”), but forget the Paul McCartney concert tickets: he prides himself on a cutting-edge sensibility. He seeks out songs by musicians “young enough to be grandchildren of the Beatles” and prefers artists “off the radar of anyone whose name is inked on a mortgage.” His example of mortification is to be caught with Michael McDonald in your iPod library.

And he shows other signs of insecurity. His position as chief technology correspondent for Newsweek ought to underscore his authority on this subject. But he is overly fond of emphasizing his backstage access to Steve Jobs, and of locutions like “I once found myself in a heated discussion with Bill Gates about….”

At least he can claim to have been the first person to hand Gates a Microsoft-unfriendly iPod and asked “Have you seen this yet?” As Gates absorbed every detail about the rival product, Levy says, “I could almost hear the giant sucking sound.”

Gates' interest in the Apple iPod could not have surpassed that of Levy, who has written an entire book about one item and even modeled it on that device's hallowed image. The cover of The Perfect Thing looks as much like an iPod as it can, given the necessity for pages and binding. And the book's structure is iPod-mimetic too. Levy has deliberately mimicked the shuffle feature so that different editions of The Perfect Thing present their chapters in different orders. This has less novelty than it promises. There are plenty of books with chapters that address separate themes and don't follow any logical progression.

The Perfect Thing raises one big question: is it possible to spin a whole book out of such literally lightweight subject matter? Answer: yes, if you don't mind repetition and don't expect to learn anything new. The Perfect Thing is more entertaining than informative, but it makes a very satisfactory mash note. Gushing aside (“this is its universally celebrated, endlessly pleasing, devilishly functional, drop-dead gorgeous design”), it does a handy job of crystallizing and commemorating the dawn of the iPod age.

“No wonder that iPods have replaced toasters as bank premiums,” Levy writes, offering a measure of how fully the iPod has pervaded everyday life. Though the idea of walking around with one's own music library was inconceivable two decades ago (a 1985 disk drive for a primitive MP3 player was insufficient to hold Neil Young's nine-minute Down by the River), it has become second nature to a new, wired breed of consumer. “Pity the poor beggars and street musicians who must now compete with the personal concerts buzzing in the heads of potential donors,” Levy writes. With the selective obliviousness of any iPod fetishist, he screens out the thought that beggars might be pitied for other reasons.

This iPod success story also virtually screens out a pivotal factor in its earth-shaking influence: The actual earth-shaking of Sept. 11. The iPod was unveiled in October 2001, and the world was eager for distraction. “This is the freedom to be deaf to the loudspeakers of history,” says one iPod fan.

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