One evening in the summer of 1992, a year after I had graduated from New York University’s journalism school, I ran into a former professor who asked me what I was working on. I mentioned that I’d recently written a magazine article about the Grameen Bank for The Atlantic and was looking for a new subject. My teacher asked about the bank, and after noting my enthusiasm, commented, “Why don’t you write a book about it?”
The question caught me off guard. I replied that the idea hadn’t occurred to me. We dropped the subject, but in the months that followed, I could neither shake the thought nor figure out how to move forward on it. I didn’t believe I could write a whole book about a Bangladeshi bank that people in the United States would care to read.
I don’t remember how I came across Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. But I do remember sitting in my parents’ living room in Montreal on a sunny fall afternoon and feeling a thrill as I began to see, thanks to Kidder’s marvelous nonfiction, how I could make the Grameen story come alive.
The Soul of a New Machine is ostensibly about a team of engineers in the late 1970s who build a 32-bit superminicomputer—a challenge then at the forefront of technological innovation. But the book isn’t really about building a computer. It could be fairly titled The Soul of Anything New, since it’s really about how people come together and achieve remarkable things. At its deepest level, it’s about the conditions that produce excellence in human endeavors.
Reading the book, I scribbled notes in a hundred places, flagging where Kidder’s storytelling might instruct my own. Kidder didn’t seem to mind that his characters—“microkids” too young to know “what’s supposed to be impossible” and their daring leader, Tom West—were mere electrical engineers spending their days and nights in a basement lab. He drew out their personalities and motivations in painstaking detail as if they were heroes in an epic history—and they became so. And Kidder wasn’t afraid, as many journalists are, to show that he genuinely cared for his characters.
What I loved most about the book was the sense of wonder and possibility it generated in me. I knew the same drama and color Kidder had discovered in what could have been a dry and esoteric subject could be found within a story about Muhammad Yunus and others developing the Grameen Bank. Suddenly I thought: What a miracle of human inventiveness I have stumbled upon in Grameen! How could I have failed to appreciate this before? I realized that for months I had dwelled on the distances between people and cultures, but that the “microkids” of Data General and the “microcredit kids” of Grameen Bank were, in fact, engaged in life in similar ways: They were in the act of joyful creation, and it was thrilling to share their journey.
Early in Kidder’s book, one of the characters says that Tom West “brought us out of our depression into the honesty of pure work.” Kidder played a similar role in my life, helping me to discover my own true work.
DAVID BORNSTEIN is the author of The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank and How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Il Mondo, Défis Sud, and other publications.