Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Michael Lewis is a National Treasure: Reading "The New New Thing"



Here’s the thing.  The book “The New New Thing” isn’t in fact a new thing.  It appears to come from a time in Michael Lewis’s life where his books didn’t automatically go into a paperback pressing.  It took me a while to figure this out.  I was at my library looking at the new shelf, and there on the shelf was this book.  I had to look, since I had not heard of the book at all and thought that it was weird that it bypassed my attention.  I cursed Amazon’s bots for not recommending this to me the first time around. Briefly, I thought their technology had failed.

So it is not a new book, but the words are fresh and come off the page as only Lewis can make them.  He is perhaps one of the better story-tellers around, so he is a bit of a national treasure.  What’s weird is that the book is basically just a long profile of Jim Clark, a dot-com (and earlier) superstar who was good with hardware and smart enough to glom on to the right software guys.  I may be part of the wrong circles, but I had never heard of the man before the book (meaning I don’t know what his last 15 years or so have been like) but the book covers an exceptional time in Clark’s life which also corresponds with the  tech bubble.  It is of a piece of the tech bubble in another way – of the five or so companies that Clark has a hand in during the book, only one at this point is immediately recognizable: the now defunct browser company Netscape. (The book did make me want to find what had happened to the company, merged into AOL and wound down around 2008 but the tech lives on in firefox)

There’s also a whole lot about Clark’s attempt to build a giant automated sailboat.  Lewis is on the not-entirely-successful maiden voyage.  Clark seems to have been of his time but also ahead of it. This makes the book interesting, but more so as an artefact of the time than of anything else. It is to be read if you’re a Lewis completest, but passable otherwise.