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 (Times Books, $25), 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, dozen of friends, associates, and family 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 (Crown Business, $25.95) 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 VC outfit. The Benchmark boys eschewed the usual personality-driven VC 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 decided they'd rather do business with the 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 Mr. McCaw were still with us, he'd be hanging with likes of the eBoys.
Online content turned out not to be king, but it makes an impressive mouthpiece for the proletariat. Enter Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium (edited by John Bowe et al., Crown, $25), a 127-voice choir of the US workforce.
You might have read some of these essays-cum-monologues back when Word, one of the first online 'zines, was still good. Those days are sadly past, but like Studs Terkel's Working, its 1972 print predecessor, Gig's significance is destined to outlast its source.
If you don't know Working, the idea is that people in different lines of work talk about their jobs, what they do, and how they feel about it. It sounds like a recipe for a marathon bitch session, but the interview subjects in Gig are thoughtful and mostly proud of what they do all day.
The editors culled Word's archives well: Honestly, would you have thought to kick things off with insight from a Wal-Mart greeter? And neither the high points nor the low come from expected sources: The transient carnival worker is a sweet Southern woman trying to keep her midway game both clean and fun ("If somebody comes up, they get somethin'. Because I'm not goin' to let nobody leave without nothing"), while the parochial school basketball coach is an abusive sleazoid you wouldn't want within 500 yards of children.
Like Working before it, this tome rings true in two octaves. For now, the noise comes from its Netly origins. In years to come, though, it'll sound a different note: a pitch-perfect evocation of American working life in the closing decade of the second millennium. Buy this book. It's the most entertaining time capsule you'll ever lay hands on.
YOU'RE GOING TO need a nap before you tackle The Age of Access, the latest from venerable gadfly Jeremy Rifkin (JP Tarcher, $24.95). 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 in it the ancient concept of The Market as a public space ends 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 that 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.
HERE'S ONE FOR the record books. The Monk And The Riddle (Randy Komisar with Kent Lineback, Harvard Business School Press, $22.50), which purports to explain how to live large in the Industry without losing one's soul, went from "looks cool" to "get it off me" literally by the end of the first sentence. "It's February 1999," ghostwrites the "virtual CEO" of such companies as LucasArts, "and I'm motorcycling across the most arid expanse of Burma. . . ." Komisar's going to tell me how to lead a well-rounded life, but by word number 13 he's blithely dropping tourist dollars in one of the world's most brutal dictatorships? I'm happy for Mr. Komisar that he's sufficiently broad-minded to enjoy a vacation on a motorcycle, but well-roundedness entails a bit more awareness of the real world. Beyond that, the book is like many of its shelfmates—equal portions VC pontification and lip-smacking unctuousness. Feh.
FINALLY WE HAVE Web Rules: How the Internet Is Changing the Way Consumers Make Choices (Tom Murphy, Dearborn Trade, $25), written by a former correspondent for Bloomberg News and with the deep analysis of five minutes spent watching that television service. Not that there's anything wrong with that—if you're thinking of getting into e-commerce and aren't yet familiar with such bromides as "money talks" and "on the Internet virtually any company . . . can get into the ring with the biggest opponent and have a fighting chance to win" (does anyone believe that anymore?), this book may be the crib sheet you need. Alternately, if you haven't had your fill of "insights" from the likes of Ann Winblad and Jerry Yang, the interviews in the second part of the book are well-conducted and readable. Just don't try any of your new knowledge on the likes of the e-Boys or Craig McCaw; they're way ahead of you.