Books : reviews

Tracy Kidder.
The Soul of a New Machine.
Penguin. 1981

rating : 2 : great stuff

The Pulitzer Prize winning story of designing and building a new mini-computer

Tracy Kidder.

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

The story of designing and building a new house

Tracy Kidder.
A Truck Full of Money.
Random House. 2016

Tracy Kidder, the “master of the nonfiction narrative” (The Baltimore Sun) and the author of the bestselling classics Mountains Beyond Mountains, Strength in What Remains, and The Soul of a New Machine, now brings us the inspiring life of an American original, the exciting story of Paul English, an inventive, kinetic, and generous man who had a mind for the age that was coming. In A Truck Full of Money, Kidder gives us a window onto the paradoxical world of software engineering and Internet commerce, where genius and artistry often mingle with vulgarity and greed, and where Paul English, for all his success, seems at times almost an innocent.

Fortune, mania, genius, philanthropy—the co-founder of the travel website grew up in working-class Boston in the 1970s, a boy who rebelled against authority but discovered a world that called out to his talents the first time he saw a computer. Kidder takes us on a fascinating pilgrim’s journey through the brave new world of computers and the Internet. Despite suffering from what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, English belongs to what one of the world’s greatest living computer scientists, Donald Knuth, has called the 2 percent: people with a special talent that lay dormant for millennia in a fraction of humanity, waiting for its very instrument—the computer—to be invented.

As a young man possessed by what he calls “the fire,” Paul English invents companies, and while not all succeed, he keeps bouncing back, discovering in himself a talent for conceiving innovative enterprises and building teams that can develop them. He becomes, as one observer puts it, “a Pied Piper” of geeks. His optimism, energy, and kindness, his innate sense of fair play, and his native abilities inspire intense loyalty among his followers. Early on, one colleague who leaves a good job to follow him to a start-up remarks, “Someday this boy’s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I'm going to be standing beside him.” Yet when English does indeed make a fortune—when Kayak is sold for almost two billion dollars—the first thing he thinks about is how to give the money away: “What else would you do with it?” The second thing he thinks is. What's next?

Kidder casts a fresh, critical, and often humorous eye on the way new money and new ideas—often frivolous and yet vital to the functioning of virtually every aspect of modem society—are reshaping our culture and the world. The Los Angeles Times said that Tracy Kidder’s “kind of literary journalism … involves seeing the world through the eyes of those he writes about; not judging them, simply presenting them as they move through life. … Kidder is one of the best, if not the best, at it.” With this unforgettable portrait, Kidder takes us inside the mind of a mesmerizing figure who is unique and yet a representative creature of our entrepreneurial age—bold, big-hearted, and as unpredictable as America itself.