Some storied works have surprising relevance for prototypers and inventors

Philip Roth essentially prototyped each book—just as an inventor uses a rough idea to develop a higher concept, slowly learning things about the technology and refining the product.


A book is my best friend during this more relaxed time of year.

As an engineer I enjoy reading about technical subjects, but I also love a good novel or essay. One of my favorite pastimes is driving back to my parents’ house and perusing my mom’s bookshelves for new friends.

She has many books from the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s that are some of my favorites from this era. The feel and smell of books published closer to their original release date have a way of heightening the experience.

On the surface, literature may not seem to offer much to the inventor mind. But books from non-technical authors can be food for the soul and provide a different context in which to weigh our ideas, while offering nuggets as to how we should approach product development. Here are some of my favorite authors and what their work can teach us about innovation.

Philip Roth

Roth, who died last year, is widely regarded as one of the great novelists of the last half century, with more than 30 books. “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral” are two of the best-known works from his innovative and controversial career.

Roth’s novels were often autobiographical. His candid writing about adult themes resulted in divided opinions about his work.

His career is more proof that it can take a long time for someone’s work to gain popularity, including inventors. Despite his critically acclaimed writing, he struggled to parlay that into film success. From 1959 to 2003, only two of his books, “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” were produced for the big screen.

Roth’s 2006 interview with Terry Gross from NPR’s “Fresh Air” provides a great lesson we can relate to prototyping. When asked whether his storylines are mapped out before he writes, he responded:  “I don’t know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write, you know? You don’t know anything. You don’t even know how to write.

“So you begin every book as an amateur and as a dummy. And in the writing, you discover the book. … Each and every sentence is a revelation.”

Roth essentially prototyped each book—just as an inventor uses a rough idea to develop a higher concept, slowly learning things about the technology and refining the product. Each prototype provides a revelation and brings the product one step closer to production, just as every sentence did for Roth.

David Foster Wallace

Pulitzer Prize-nominated David Foster Wallace wrote a mixture of novels and essays. His most popular and lengthy work is the novel “Infinite Jest,” which spans 1,079 pages.

However, most of his work was as an essayist and columnist for publications such as The New Yorker, GQ and Harper’s. Although I have yet to make it through “Infinite Jest”—I tried many years ago, the task complicated by trying to read a 4-inch-thick book while exercising on an elliptical machine at the gym—I have thoroughly enjoyed his essays in “Consider the Lobster” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

I had a “meta moment” with Wallace when I started reading his first essay in “Consider the Lobster” called “Big Red Son,” which is about the 1998 Consumer Electronics Show—as I was on a plane to Las Vegas for CES!

The piece details his experience at the adult film trade show, which used to be a subsection of CES before growing to be its own event. Though much of the essay is sexually explicit, it includes descriptions of new product launches from that year such as “Personal Java 1.0” and “The First Ever Full Text Message Pager in a Wristwatch.”

By far, my favorite of his essays is “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” In the spirit of his writing, it is a largely critical analysis of his time aboard a seven-night cruise on a ship he nicknames the SS Nadir.

He wrote: “I have heard upscale citizens ask … whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeet shooting will be held outside … and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”

The most helpful insight from this work for product developers is when Wallace discusses the advertising brochures on the boat. He describes how they are not merely a factual description of the cruise and its services. They create an immersive and emotional moment for the intended audience that draws them into the experience.

“In regular advertising … the purchase is prerequisite to the fantasy … in the cruise brochure’s ads, you are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you,” he wrote.

Product developers spend lots of time building prototypes and obsessing over the minutiae of the functionality of their designs. However, it may lead to more commercial success if our inventions, and the features they have, are tuned to fit within the fantasy of how the potential customer will use them.

Chuck Klosterman

I became obsessed with Klosterman’s work after reading his essay collection “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.” This book is a delight for Gen X-ers as it features chapters on the reality show “The Real World,” teen sitcom “Saved by the Bell” and an essay on why the movie “Star Wars” is overrated. Insights that can be applied to product development are found in two of his other books.

“But What if We’re Wrong” is a series of essays that encourages us to view our present life as it were the distant past. Its central argument is that it is impossible to tell what the future will think of present-day art, music, culture and science.

Klosterman cites the novel “Moby Dick” as a prime example. When the book was released in the middle of the 19th century, it received mixed reviews. Sales flopped, and author Herman Melville’s life took a turn for the worse. Today, “Moby Dick” is largely considered a literary classic.

Two takeaways for the product developer: Bad reviews do not necessarily mean a product is bad; it may just be ahead of its time. It is also powerful to consider that at any moment, you could be very wrong about your present-day thinking.

Considering how a product may fail in the future (sometimes called “future-proofing”) is something that professional product developers are constantly thinking about during the development cycle to ensure the product has maximum longevity.

Klosterman reminds us how long it can take technology to mature in his book “Eating the Dinosaur.” In the essay “Going Nowhere and Getting There Never,” he explores the automobile’s place in American culture.

The author reminds us that even though the automobile has been around for more than a century, it is still really new tech whose real capabilities may not reveal themselves for many more years.

He writes: “From a historical perspective, we’re still figuring out what cars are supposed to be—I mean, boats have existed for forty thousand years, but nobody managed to consistently sail anywhere distant until the Middle Ages. If you look at a Model T and a Lexus LS, there are far more similarities than differences.”

It’s sobering that even an impactful product we develop in our lifetime may not fully reach its potential until well after we are dead. Yet it is also exciting to imagine how far each generation of designers may push technology forward in new and innovative ways.