House

As he so amply demonstrated in his previous book, ‘‘The Soul of a New Machine,’‘ which was about the design and construction of a computer, Tracy Kidder is a master at the difficult art of describing complex objects and processes. His prose could make you visualize a borasnadafras doing a cherbstorg, if there ever were such things.

In ‘‘House,’‘ his task is a good deal simpler – to recount the design and building of a one-family house that went up in Amherst, Mass., in the summer of 1983. So naturally this book is full of satisfying passages about the laying of foundations, the mounting of frames, the raising of roofs, and the mitering and coping of moldings. (Excerpted from the New York Times’ review of the book in 1985.)

The opening passage:

Jim Locke sets gently on the undisturbed earth a mahogany box, opens it, and takes out his transit, which looks like a spyglass. It is a tool for imposing levelness on an irregular world.

Locke’s transit is made of steel with small brass adjusting wheels and is as old as the century, more than twice as old as Locke, who is thirty-six. He uses it near the beginnings of jobs and first of all for guiding bulldozers. Locke erects the transit on a tripod. He turns the brass wheels until the bubble, encased in glass beneath the eyepiece, floats to the center of its chamber.

This piece of ground was once part of a New England hayfield. It lies on the southern outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, a college and university town, the kind of place that has a fine public-school system and a foreign policy. The site has been studied all winter. It commands pretty views. There’s a deep-looking woods on one edge. On another there’s a pasture, which turns into the precipitous, forested, publicly owned hills known as the Holyoke Range. And to the north and east there’s a panorama. Look north and you see a hillside orchard topped with two giant maples locally known as Castor and Pollux. Look a little east and your view extends out over a broad valley, all the way to the Pelham Hills, which have turned blue at this morning hour.

The air has some winter in it. On this morning in mid April, 1983, a New England spring snow is predicted. The sky looks prepared. It has a whitening look. Several weeks must pass before dandelions appear, but the urge to build has turned April into May. While Locke prepares for the transformation of this ground, four others pace around, killing time. They have their collars turned up and their hands thrust deep into coat pockets. They wait with reddening noses. None of the onlookers needs to be here, but none would have willingly stayed away. Among them is a very tall man named Bill Rawn. He is the architect. He has driven all the way from Boston to witness the birth of the first house he has ever designed, and he grins while he waits. There are Judith and Jonathan Souweine, the woman and the man of the house-to-be. (Their surname is French and is pronounced “Suh-wayne” or, if one is in a hurry, “Swayne.”) They have spent months planning for this moment, and they have imagined it for many more. Judith and Jonathan smile at each other. Judith takes a few snapshots while Jim Locke works with the transit.