Summer, the season of featherweight literature, lends itself admirably to books on the lives of the superrich, as long as they’re not too deep — the books, not the lives. And yet we geeks have so much serious reading to do! Which makes Money From Thin Air, Seattle Times reporter Casey Corr’s substantial-yet-lively look at Craig McCaw, both the kind of book you wouldn’t mind taking to the beach and the kind you don’t mind being seen reading there.
Corr notes that McCaw granted two interviews for this biography before losing interest; fortunately, dozens of friends, associates and family members stepped up. The resulting perspective saves Thin Air from the worst sucking-up impulses of books of its kind; on the other hand, you sense that Corr was still groping for insight into his subject by the end. McCaw’s reputation as the industry’s least-understood guru remains unimpeached.
That’s not to say you won’t learn a great deal from Thin Air. Not only does Corr do a super job of detailing McCaw’s career and unique personal style, the opening tales of sire Elroy McCaw (a character equal parts P.T. Barnum and J.P. Morgan) are entirely worth the price of admission. Corr avoids wading too far into the numeric part of McCaw’s financial wizardry, concentrating on the story of how young Craig won the cellular war. And the book’s epilogue, dealing with the younger McCaw’s efforts on behalf of Keiko the whale, is both charming and strangely sad; it reveals a man neck-deep in the communications industry who, famously reticent with humans, seems to find rapport with an entirely different species.
Of course, money doesn’t really come from thin air. Money comes from venture capitalists, who are less like thin air and more like black boxes. The idea of such firms throwing their doors open to reporters is outlandish, which makes Randall E. Stross’ eBoys: The First Inside Account of Venture Capitalists at Work not only a terrific read, but a sociological curiosity.
Then again, Benchmark Partners (the firm that invited Stross to hang out for two years) isn’t your traditional V.C. outfit. The Benchmark boys eschewed the usual personality-driven V.C. corporate culture, operating as a unit and taking on, first, the companies that couldn’t get the attention of the Kleiner Perkinses of the world and then, later, those who wanted to work with a young group seemingly blessed with a golden touch.
If you enjoy numbers-rich business books, you’ll love this; if you don’t, you’re apt to like it anyway. The story of Benchmark, its successes (eBay, Webvan) and its failures (toysrus.com) is compelling, and Stross generally manages to shake off the glamour of his fly-on-the-wall position and tell the story. Craig McCaw may have learned a great deal from watching his father in action, but I’d bet that if the elder McCaw were still with us, he’d be hanging with the likes of the eBoys.
You’re going to need a nap before you tackle The Age of Access, the latest from venerable gadfly Jeremy Rifkin. Subtitled “The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience,” the book pretty much states its case right there.
Rifkin has seen the future — he does that for a living, you know — and it is dark. The ancient concept of The Market as a public space is coming to an end in the dust of the globalized, virtualized, packetized and — most importantly — personalized “experience economy,” which resembles the here-today-dissolved-tomorrow alliances formed by moviemakers.
Certainly, the new order has its advantages; Rifkin points to increased consumer choice and vast corporate flexibility as but two facets of the upside. But civilization isn’t necessarily ready for it. Our social equilibrium — specifically, how we spend our time and interact with one another — is in danger of being swamped by the rising tides. Figuring out how to reinvent ourselves while bridging the digital divide that separates America from most of the world is perhaps one of the biggest challenges humanity faces at the cusp of the new age. Rifkin’s no optimist and this isn’t light reading, but it’s a wonderfully meaty book — good and good for you.
MONEY FROM THIN AIR | By O. CASEY CORR | Times Books | 310 pages | $25 hardcover
EBOYS: THE FIRST INSIDE ACCOUNT OF VENTURE CAPITALISTS AT WORK | By RANDALL E. STROSS Crown Business | 325 pages | $26 hardcover
THE AGE OF ACCESS: THE NEW CULTURE OF HYPERCAPITALISM WHERE ALL OF LIFE IS A PAID-FOR EXPERIENCE By JEREMY RIFKIN | J.P. Tarcher | 312 pages | $25 hardcover