As we've done before, both jonkatz and myself have read, and written reviews of Po Bronson's forthcoming book, Nudist on the Late Shift. While this book will get a huge amount of media attention - it's worth it. Click below to read more.
Mostly because I'm actually posting the story, I've taken the liberty of writing the first review. Katz is below.
Po Bronson is actually, almost in spite of all the hype surronding him. I was not familar with his other two books, but had heard his name and the book floating around recently, and was pleasantly suprised when Random House mailed me an advance copy.
It's difficult to quantify Bronson as writer, but for those of you familar with his work, I would say that Douglas Coupland (of Microserfs fame) and he are authors in the same intellectual space. Both of them pay attention to the people in their stories, making themselves into conduits for the stories their characters have to tell. The characters in Nudist feel real (Well, because they are real, but...) because Bronson seems to become simply the fiber optic cable that passes them down to us.
And the characters are interesting to watch and read - from French start-ups, to the founder of Hotmail, Bronson captures a wide swatch of the personalities of the Valley. The characters are seemingly always just waiting for the big break - or actually got it. It's the infectious spirit of the Valley - that this business is going to be one, or your next idea will be the one, and that no one can lose. Only occasionally do hints of worry come in, expressed in poignant ways.
The rose colored glasses of the characters is a definite theme of the book, but I don't find this to be a weakness of the book itself. It's the feeling of the times, that like Paris in 1920s, San Fransico in 1848-1849, this is a time that the whole world is looking and watching, and that there is more then enough to go around. The only well that may run dry is the well of ideas in your own mind - and that's the only real concern of possible need/shortfall.
Overall, I was quite impressed by the book - Tom Wolfe, one of the greatest American authors puts Bronson on his short list of two modern authors. I'm not quite that impressed, but Bronson is worth the read - despite the media coverage.
Jon Katz's Review
Po Bronson is one of the first serious writers to mine the human side of the second Great Goldrush that is Silicon Valley. Most journalists are drawn to the middle-aged movers and shakers at the top of giant computing companies, and the gazillion-dollar start-ups that are now a hallmark of life there.
Bronson is drawn to the young billionaires on their way up and the bizarre and oddly poignant supporting cast of wizards, visionaries, programmers, engineers and money-launderers in suits - workaholics all, that is turning a small valley in Northern California south of San Francisco into the world's next Hong Kong.
At 34, Bronson is the chairperson of Consortium Distributors and has published two novels. He is also the reigning, soccer-loving glamorpuss of the San Francisco based digerati, so brace yourself for a nauseating round of hype - cover of Wired, piece in the NY Times Magazine, slobbering profiles, TV and other media, big Web campaign on Yahoo and other portals and sites - when his first non-fiction book "The Nudist on the Late Shift," is published this summer by Random House ($US 25). ( I am published by Villard Books, a subsidiary of Random House. I don't know Bronson).
Don't let the hype run you off. Sometimes it's warranted. Silicon Valley has a heart of solid gold, and Bronson has captured it wonderfully. The book follows the lives of 15 people, from Sub-35 billionnaires (people who have made their first billion by age 35) who sleep under their desks at night until there's too much junk, to Indian immigrants who build half-billion dollar businesses, to the programmer who bursts into tears watching Babylon 5 because the show's characters have the kind of relationships with people that obsessive work has denied him.
"The Sub-35 billionaire is really a new life-form" writes Bronson, "an economic mutation that emerged from this little pond of vigorous capitalist Darwinism. It's as if dinosaurs suddenly hatched again in the Alviso mudflats off San Jose. The Sub-35 billionaire, this new species, captures the imagination not just like any zoo animal -- he's a brontosaurus." It's a fitting start to this book. "The Nudist on the Late Shift" is a wickedly-penetrating study of the biology of Silicon Valley.
Bronson doesn't miss once in his profiles. They are not only the often hilarious and surprising portrait of individual people, but of a new culture, sparingly and lovingly drawn.
My personal favorite is the journey of Sabeer Bhatia, who arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport at 6 p.m. on the evening of September 23, l988 on a flight from Bangalore India, starving, puzzling over how to get to Cal Tech, where he had been awarded a scholarship. He had $250 in his pocket. At school, he loved to attend brown bag luncheons attended by people like Scott McNealy, Steve Wozniak, and Marc Andreessen, whose basic message was always the same: you can do it too.
So he did. He founded Hotmail, the personal database and free e-mail company, despite many rejections from numerous potential investors. In l998, after coolly rejecting a series of Microsoft offers, he found himself at a meeting in Redmond with Bill Gates and a platoon of Microsoft executives. Reluctantly, he sold Hotmail to MS for $400 million.
Reading this, you can't stop asking yourself why Gates didn't do the same thing Bhatia did, rather than spend a half-billion dollars to buy him out. Bhatia, in fact, often wondered the very same thing. (To this day, some analysts think Bhatia could have gotten a billion if he'd waited a bit.) The answer, Bronson explains, lies in understanding Silicon Valley.
Bronson's book doesn't provide much insight into technology or computing, or of day-to-day live in Silicon Valley. Nor does it give much sense of the battered lives of the many losers who aren't as bold, lucky or determined as Bhatia. The strength of this book isn't only in the stories Bronson's characters tell, but in the unadorned simplicity of their telling. Even reading about the price of Valley real estate, you want to get on the next plane and give it a shot, thinking "you can do it, too".
Bronson writes with the confidence and authority of someone who really knows his stuff, from the inside out. He makes no judgements. His subjects speak for themselves, leaving us to judge for ourselves. And he recognizes that the modern-day Valley is really the latest incarnation of the ultimate American fantasy/myth - there are unimaginable riches in them hills for those who are brave and determined enough to head West, stake their claims and dig.
This is great stuff for anybody who has ever fantasized about scoring big, or who has ever come near a computer. In fact, one of the nice things about the book is that it's equally compelling whether you love the Net, or plan never to go on it.
Buy this book at Amazon.