I was massively disappointed by Tracy Kidder's "A Truck Full of Money."
19 October 2016
And that hurts me to say, because I am a huge Tracy Kidder fan.
In this nonfiction outing, Kidder provides a long-form character profile of Paul English, perhaps best known for selling his travel/search business Kayak.com to Priceline for 1.8 billion dollars. This of course made him, and his partners and investors, a "truck full of money." So what happens, English and Kidder seem to be asking, when someone makes a huge amount of money, when that may or may not have been their goal all along?
Well, apparently the answer to the question "what do you do with a lot of money?" is, nothing terribly interesting. At least, that is, if you are Paul English. I slogged through this whole book, and my only real question throughout was, why did Kidder think Paul English was interesting enough to sustain an entire book-long investigation?
So what did Paul English do? Well, he helped his partners and other longtime collaborators make enough money to make themselves secure. There's something to be said for that. And he gave a lot of money to charitable causes, but none of them terribly interesting or terribly personally strongly felt (to learn how to go about his philanthropy, he tried to learn from an older wealthy Bostonian who he viewed as a mentor and a friend, eventually giving money to many of the same causes as his mentor). There's definitely something to be said for that. And he started a new company, and spent money to try and help others achieve their company-starting dreams.
But in the end, a character profile needs, frankly, to be about a CHARACTER. Paul English is many things. Very, very smart. No one is arguing that. Very resilient. He grew up in a large family and worked a lot of jobs (including some that were less than legal), and he has struggled for many years with a diagnosis of both bipolar and hypomania, meaning he has tried to figure out how to live well while on medications. Not easy. But a character? I thought the most telling segment of the book, if one of the most boring, was the lengthy section on English's venture after selling Kayak: a company called Blade, basically meant to be an incubator for other tech businesses. Kidder details English's obsession with making his company and headquarters a nightclub (of all things) as well, called Blade at Night:
"You might have wondered if his plans for Blade's office were merely reproductions of his adolescence, the creation of a venue for his idea of fun, but he had a commercial rationale for Blade-by-night, which he put in a document addressed to Blade.team--that is, to Billo and Schwenk [two of his longtime work partners]:
Blade will run monthly meetup parties, invite-only, for selected members of Boston's innovation scene. Our goal is to make these parties one of the best places for engineers and designers and artists to meet...
[He also taught at MIT during this time, and knew a group of four MIT computer science graduates who had already sold a software company.] Paul had lunch with them one afternoon to catch up on their latest enterprise. First, though, he had to tell them his own news, his plans for the Blade office.
He was just getting started--'And it turns into a nightclub at night,' he was saying--when, in unison, all four young engineers burst out laughing.
'And you just unplug the desk from the wall. Probably in thirty minutes thirty desks will disappear.'
'That sounds awesome!" cried the young woman of the group.
'And when I put my hand on the puck, the Grey Goose and Kahlua will light up...'
Softly, pensively, as if to himself, one of the young men said, 'I want to hang out at this nightclub.'" (pp. 185-186.)
And this is when he was nearly fifty. Ye Gods. When all the "finest minds" of our generation (so-called) can come up with after making tons of money is to incubate new software companies and give them a place to drink after hours, well, that is just not terribly interesting. Perhaps even more telling is the spec sheet for the "Blade truck," which takes up nearly two pages of the book and includes items like "under-car purple lights for effect when parked in our alley at night, maybe color changing to the music. :)" (p. 188.)
Give this one a miss. There's a million better computer/technology books to read (including Kidder's own The Soul of a New Machine, which, though outdated, is still way more fascinating than this book) and there's certainly better character portraits out there (including Kidder's own Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World).