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Thank you Geraldine. Amy and I love and adore you. And you recommended what I think was my favorite fiction book of 2013.
I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel yesterday on the couch during digital sabbath. It was just wonderful. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it for the first fifteen minutes other than knowing that Geraldine and Amy said that I would love it.
By minute 30 I couldn’t put it down. And two hours later I was done. And smiling. And thinking that I should go read all the Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern books again. They were childhood favorites and – while having no direct relationship to this book – things that were referenced kept making me think of them.
The characters of wonderful. I especially love Penumbra, Clay, and Kat. But the intricate flavors, mix, interactions, and crossover between the world of Google and the world of dusty old book stores was just delicious.
If you want something light, beautiful, clever, and full of awesomeness to read over New Years, try this one.
A bunch of my tech friends have asked me to suggest a book to read over the holidays. My unambiguous recommendation is The Circle by Dave Eggers.
I think it’s one of the best books I read this year. I’m an unabashed Eggers fan. My favorites of his are A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story and Zeitoun. I also have a giant literary crush on everything McSweeney’s.
The early literary reviews of The Circle were awesome while the reviews by people in the tech community were mixed to negative. The tech criticism was weak and felt like it lacked depth. Most of it was “hey – Eggers doesn’t really understand how this stuff works” or “Eggers doesn’t use this stuff therefore his book sucks” kind of stuff.
The Circle was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony.”
We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.
Eggers completely disassembles this through a deeply engaging story with vibrant characters. Some of the characters are recognizable composites of well known people from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a few other large bay area tech companies. Some are unknowns, but broad representations of archetypes of the people that work throughout these companies. And some are random players.
They combine in a magical way as the story unfolds. Large parts of the book are uncomfortably close to home, shining an absurd light just a little to0 brightly on stuff we talk about – in private, and in public – all the time.
And then – boom – Eggers does what he does best. As the pressure builds, he makes his point, over and over again. With a relentless drumbeat of character destruction. In a way that is cringeworthy to an extreme. Where you vacillate between “she deserved that” and “shit, that’s just not right.” And, as you take a deep breath and process what just happens, he does it again.
All the little circles with numbers on them on my phone are bothering me right now. All the dots, numbers, flashing, and bouncing things on my laptop reminds me how absurd this has all become. While Eggers shoves it in our faces with The Circle, the end-state implications of this is prescient, especially in a Snowden-like (or should we say Orwellian) world.
Powerful stuff. And really fun to read.
I was in a reading mood this weekend so I read Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal after reading No Better Time on Saturday. I finished it just before I walked the dog and then went to bed.
I slept very poorly last night and woke up thinking about the book. I woke up several times in the night (I’m getting older – that’s part of the drill – anyone over 45 knows what I mean) and each time I had something about the book in my brain.
When I woke up this morning, the first thought I had as I was brushing my teeth was “the characters in the book weren’t right.” When I read history, especially of a technology company, I often know a few of the people pretty well. When the writer captures their essence, it lends credibility to all the other people I don’t know. When the writer misses, it detracts from the whole thing.
In Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton (the author) captured a dimension of the people I know. But it was only one dimension. And it missed – completely – in capturing the whole of the people. The dimension he highlighted made the story more dramatic as he focused on a dimension of conflict. As I sit here writing this, trying to process how I feel about the book, I realize this tactic – by focusing on only one dimension of a person – created incredible tension in the story.
I love Ben Mezrich and his books. I realize that Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is written in the same style as Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. The title is even in the same style. The big difference is that Mezrich doesn’t pretend that he’s not sensationalizing the situation. That’s his gig – and he’s not apologetic about it in any way. Note the phrases after the colon – “A True Story” (Bilton) and “A Tale of” (Mezrich).
A puzzle piece just clicked into place for me. I read Hatching Twitter (Twitter story) the day after I read No Better Time (Akamai story). Both were dramatic. No Better Time was history; Hatching Twitter was sensationalized history. No Better Time created real depth around one character – Daniel Lewin. Hatching Twitter tried to do this around the story of Twitter but had to do this at the expense of the depth of the characters to fit into the 300 pages that a non-fiction book like this ends up being due to publishing industry constraints so it has a chance of ending up on a best seller list.
I wonder what Bilton could have done with 900 pages instead of 300 pages. I’ve got to believe – given the extensive interviews he did – that he has a much deeper view on many of the characters in the book. Or, instead of using 300 pages to rush through parts of the story, he used 900 pages to go deeper on the whole story, instead of picking out several of the dramatic highlights.
I’m clearly still processing this. I had hoped to love this book. Instead, it disturbed me. Something felt deeply off, but even after writing this, I’m not sure what it is. If you’ve read Hatching Twitter, and you have an opinion, please weigh in as I try to sort this out in my mind.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. On an almost daily basis, someone out in the world sends me a physical book, which I love. While I have something like 500 unread books on my Kindle, I still love laying on the couch reading a physical book. So the stacks of books that show up keep me company and I chomp through them whenever I need a break from everything else.
Yesterday I read No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet. It was awesome and I recommend it for any entrepreneur out there either working on a company or thinking about starting a company.
If you don’t recognize the name Danny Lewin there are two big things to know before you dive into this book. First, he was the co-founder of Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ: AKAM – currently valued at $8 billion.) Second, he was likely the very first person to die in the 9/11 attack.
There are lots of other interesting and unexpected things to know about Danny before you start the book. He was born in Denver. His parents made aliyah to Israel when he was a young teenager. He was built like a tank and was a member of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal. He longed to be at MIT.
Akamai’s original name was Cachet Technologies. They entered, but didn’t win, the MIT $50K competition in 1998. As a judge for the MIT $50k until 1996, there were always a lot of VCs hanging around. In this case, however, the only VC who truly had conviction to get behind Akamai was Todd Dagres – then of Battery Ventures, now of Spark Capital.
Akamai was an amazing pre-Internet bubble story. From nothing to IPO in less than 18 months, a market cap of > $20 billion, followed by a 99% decline in the stock price post-bubble. Over the last decade, however, they’ve demonstrated that they have a real business, now valued at $8 billion with Q313 revenue of $396m, Q313 GAAP Net Income of $80m, and cash flow from operations in Q313 of +$158m. Not bad for a company that was written off completely a decade ago.
This is the story of the creation of that company. And the people behind the creation, mostly notably Lewin. The author, Molly Knight Raskin, writes beautifully, deeply, and thoughtfully. She combines an origin story (for Akamai), a coming of age story (for Lewin), and a tragedy (for Lewin, his family, his extended family, and Akamai.) While the tragic ending, which comes much to early, is the end of the book, it’s short (less than 10% of the book), appropriate in its level of drama, and helps us process the amazing life that Lewin lived.
I’m tired of the classic boom bust popular media story arc of “hero emerges from nothing, the hero does amazing things, bad things happen and the hero crashes, watch how the hero is no longer a hero, the hero fights and claws his way out of the cellar and rises again to be a hero.” This is not one of those books. Instead, it’s a great biography of an entrepreneur, his company, and his all too short life.
William Hertling is currently my favorite “near term” science fiction writer. I just read a pre-release near-final draft of his newest book, The Last Firewall. It was spectacular. Simply awesome.
You can’t read it yet, but I’ll let you know when it’s available. In the mean time, go read the first two books in the trilogy.
They are also excellent and important for context for The Last Firewall. They are inexpensive. And they are about as close to reality while still being science fiction as you can get.
I define “near term science fiction” as stuff that will happen within the next 20 years. I used to read everything by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson. Gibson’s Neuromancer and and Stephenson’s Snow Crash were – until recently – my two favorite books in this category. Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom (TM) replaced these at the top of my list, until Hertling showed up. Now I’d put Daemon and The Last Firewall tied for first.
Amy and I were talking about this in the car today. Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson are amazing writers, but their books have become too high concept. There’s not enough love and excitement for the characters. And the science fiction is too abstract – still important, but not as accessible.
In contrast, Hertling and Suarez are just completely nailing it, as is Ramez Naam with his recent book Nexus. My tastes are now deeply rooted with these guys, along with Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.
If I was writing science fiction, this would be what I was going for. And, if you want to understand the future, this is what you should be reading.