Review: Commodork —
As someone who is bathed in Bulletin Board System (BBS) history nearly every waking hour, I can sometimes feel like I’m the only one going completely out of his way to find narratives. It’s easy enough to copy together a bunch of floppy disks or scan a bunch of printouts but that’s not really the glue of what put the online world together and why it still holds a strong meaning for people who were there. As a result, I’m always seeking out people to tell their stories from a personal perspective, or at least take a good shot at putting together the human side of the whole BBS era for the sake of those who missed it. If I’m lucky, I stumble upon a few sites where people do a great job of cobbling together what they didn’t throw out from their teenage years. I might even find an extended story out on a website, spanning multiple pages.
With Rob O’Hara’s book Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie, I believe we have the world’s first BBS Memoir. Weighing in at around 160 pages, O’Hara covers his life from 1977 through to 2002, tracing the effect that Bulletin Boards, videogames, and computers have had on his life. Just 33 years old, it might seem strange for someone to write an autobiographical narrative so soon, but like a lot of youth who’ve grown up in the age of the home computer, O’Hara’s gotten a lot of living done in that short time.
This is a self-published book, or more accurately, an author-controlled book. It is currently distributed by Lulu.com, an on-demand printer that provides you with a very “book”-looking book that you would be hard-pressed to think didn’t come right off the shelves of the local chain bookstore. The only difference is there’s no professional editor jamming through the work before it gets to you. It’s easy to find flaws in a lack of slickness and flow in a self-published book, but also no real filtering out of “the good stuff”, either. So I think of this book as a real sweet homebrew creation, rough-hewn but full of heart, not unlike the boards it talks about.
Because of this, the first few dozen pages are choppy. O’Hara works his way around his memories to find his voice: He tries to explain what it is that drives a person to still keep a pile of Commodore 64s in his garage, or build a 20-machine arcade in his back yard (the author includes a picture of this great-looking playroom), or even to want to talk about this history in the first place. He covers it from different angles: the urge to be a collector, the nostalgic dad remembering his carefree days, and the computer guy with the cred built up from now-decades of experience with the machines. He also struggles, initially, with who the book is for: folks completely unaware of the history of the BBS and home computers of the 1980s, or other 30 and up computer geeks who want to take a joyride through a shared childhood? In doing so, he actually touches on some great thoughts on what attracts people to old pieces of plastic and microchips, and why things were so different for him.
A sixth of the way in, O’Hara dispenses with the helping hand, cracks his knuckles, and goes in whole hog. Instead of asking if anyone gets it, he assumes you’ve gotten this far because you want to know it, jams the wayback machine into full throttle, and plunges into the world of BBSing for a teenager in Oklahoma. Except, of course, it’s really every BBS kid’s childhood: The little bargains, the quiet victories, the betrayals, the triumphs.
The heart and soul of the book actually are warez. Warez in the old sense, of newly-acquired one-off floppies of games, painstaking bargained for, traded, and spread out to gain fame and reputation. Throughout the book, it comes back to the warez, and O’Hara does an absolutely fantastic job of capturing the sense of power and expression that engulfs a teenager who has been able to use his skills or his patience to get his hand on a program that nobody else has and then turn around and use that slight lead to his advantage. The methods he uses are laid out in brilliant detail; one involves registering with bulletin boards in a city his family will be vacationing in shortly, allowing his far away “exotic” location to be verified by the system operator, and then traveling to that city and leeching them dry for a free local call.
O’Hara never lets it get dry and technical; it’s about people he met while trading software, the kind of people who he partied with, got into fights with, or loved. He’s not always nice and he’s not always the hero; what really rings true is how none of it feels pumped up or faked, dressed up as some inherently soul-searching activity where every moment in bristling with poignant meaning. That said, some of it rings very close to the heart indeed.
In fact, this book’s greatest effect may be the touchstone it provides for one’s own experiences. Even as Rob’s younger self is getting drunk at a BBS party and stumbling in panic from a perceived bust into the flatbed of a parked truck to sleep it off, I’m harkening back in my own mind to events that accompanied my BBSing that I’d forgotten wholly and totally. But I was there again, saving my own warez for the right moment, meeting my own soon-to-be-lifelong friends, making my own grievous mistakes. Anyone who used BBSes for any period of time will want to run to their keyboards and tell their own story; I see a lot of long e-mails in Mr. O’Hara’s future.
One small disclaimer: On page 14 of the edition of the book I have, Rob mentions my BBS Documentary, but just to say it’s not what he was aiming for with his book. And he’s right; we don’t step in each other’s territory and his book does what my film couldn’t; go front to end on one boy’s story to turning into a man online. And for that, I thank him, and I think a lot of others will too.
Is it for everyone? No way, but a book that takes on its subject so intensely shouldn’t be. If you or an older sibling or parent touched a plastic-and-metal home computer, sipped your bandwidth through a modem, or held a 5 1/4″ floppy disk in your bag to give to someone else, this book is your book. It might even be your memories, too.
It’s a good book and can be ordered through Lulu or directly from the author, who sells autographed copies.
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He keeps his Commodores in his garage? Blasphemy! Mine are in big plastic containers in a closet. (That’s why I don’t have the phone numbers for that BBS yet. It’s a long slog through some TRS-80s and Amiga2000HDs to get to the C-128.)
I keep my *spare* Commodore 64 computers in the garage. Upstairs I have a 64, an SX-64, and a C16 all hooked up. It’s not that I don’t love all my babies, I just ran out of room.