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Review: The Everything Store by Brad Stone

The Everything Store, by Brad Stone, is appropriately subtitled Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. I understand that the veracity of the content of this book has been challenged, particularly by Amazon, and I have no way of assessing where the truth lies. With that in mind, I can only comment on the book as it stands.

The Everything Store is so named as Bezos expressed a desire to use the internet to build a store with limitless stock, where one could purchase anything. On reading this, I was immediately struck by the similarity to Harrod’s motto and goal – omnia omnibus ubique – but this is an aspect that is not discussed at all in the book, more’s the pity. I think it would have made a fascinating comparison – the modern retail behemoth and the Victorian equivalent, sharing much the same goals but approaching the problem in totally different ways. But I digress.

Stone’s book gives a comprehensive account of how the company has developed, from it’s small beginnings as a low volume book store, to it’s current world-leading status. It isn’t shy about discussing the financial difficulties Amazon has faced, and indeed still faces. It is difficult to turn a profit on narrow margins, and even more so when one is selling below cost price. It also doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the questionable ethics employed by Amazon, and appears to do so in an even handed manner that is genuinely enlightening.

One particularly good example is the discussion of Bezos’s simultaneous exploitation of and protest against patent law. A lesser author would present this as rank hypocrisy; Stone presents the facts and explains Bezos’s motivation as he understands it. He then allows the reader to determine whether Bezos is acting with reprehensible hypocrisy, or acting in the most logical way possible given the circumstances. I still haven’t quite made up my mind.

The book also gives a comprehensive pen portrait of Bezos as an individual. He is clearly exceptionally driven, possibly to the point of fault, much like his CEO contemporary Steve Jobs. By the end of the book, I was a little tired of reading descriptions of his laugh, but perhaps it is such a dominant feature of his personality that it bears repeating ad nauseam.

To my mind, the book fell down a little when discussing contemporaries and other Amazon executives. The balance between detail and length doesn’t feel quite right in these passages. We are told about many of their childhoods, for example, even though they play a relatively minor role in the story. It feels as though Stone wants to share the detailed background research he has done, rather than concentrating on crafting the broader story and characterisation.

I also found the timeline difficult to follow in some passages. Stone will often abberate from the main timeline to tell the story of how a particular feature or policy developed over time. This means that there is a fair amount of jumping around, and if one doesn’t fully concentrate, it’s easy to get lost.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was engaging, balanced, and informative. The story is told with a degree of page-turning drive that isn’t typical of business books. I’d highly recommend it.

The Everything Store is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

Shortly after publication, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and smattering of other places too. Recycling is good for the planet.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Red Notice by Andy McNab

A few weeks ago, I decided that I should read a book by Andy McNab. After all, he’s an author that sells books by the pallet-load, generally to positive reviews. Red Notice is the first book in a (relatively) new series, and with it being on offer, I thought this would be as good a place to start as any.

The experience was one that I did not enjoy. The plot involved the ‘hijacking’ of a Eurostar train as it passed through the Channel Tunnel. Of course, both an SAS man and his girlfriend were on board. This plot managed to be both desperately implausible throughout and yet also somehow thoroughly predictable. In addition, as I understand to be typical of this genre, a man who is close to death several times over the course of the novel is regularly able to “bounce back” within minutes, running and shooting with the best of them.

There is a an astoundingly badly written subplot about a pregnancy, which is diagnosed in a rather unusual fashion:

“There’s nothing quite like morning sickness on a woman’s breath. It’s unmistakable.”

Not only is this somewhat medically unlikely, it’s also notable that the sex of the baby has been determined at this early stage – far earlier, in fact, than the sex of the baby can be determined. From the timeline of the book, it’s clear that this pregnancy is well within its first trimester.

Similarly, there are some amusing internal inconsistencies sprinkled throughout: a car mysteriously changes from a Jaguar to a BMW in less than a page; the geography of where people are at any one time seems inconsistent (though it is so difficult to follow at times that it is hard to tell for sure).

There are also some passages laden with unnecessary military jargon, which is often used to cover a lack of detail in the narrative. It’s almost as if he’s trying to set up a “Chekov’s gun” scenario, but without the foresight to know specifically what “Chekov’s gun” will be. My personal favourite example:

“The Slime carefully unpacked their geeky stuff from its protective aluminium boxes.”

The dialogue varies throughout from Hollywood-esque catchphrase to speaking in perfectly formed sentences. An ideal example of the former is this cringeworthy passage:

“Unless they were asleep, they were dead. And from what he’d seen of these guys, he knew they wouldn’t be sleeping.”

An example of the latter is when a character reportedly angrily yells at the top of his voice:

“I’ve got an important event tonight and I need my dinner jacket.”

On the positive side, this book does have pace. It also has a stab at discussing some of the governmental politics of SAS work, and even touches on the questionable ethics at times. Unfortunately, these elements are harmed by a lack of any depth or real substance, and a frustratingly frequent repeat of what I assume to be the shallow political views of the author (best summarised as: the SAS are professionals, politicians should let them do what they want).

All things considered, this isn’t a book I’d recommend. There’s nothing especially creative about it, and it lacks any air of authenticity. The writing and dialogue is so poor as to border on comedy. I suggest giving it a miss.

Red Notice is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis

In Public Parts, Jeff Jarvis counterbalances arguments about the sinister effects of erosion of privacy in the modern world. He argues that openness and sharing, on balance, improve the world. He coins the word 'publicness' to describe open sharing, and argues convincingly that 'publicness' is not the polar opposite of 'privacy'.

This is a book which stimulates thought. I particularly appreciated Jeff's elucidation of the argument that regulation should focus on the use of information that has been shared, rather than the sharing of information itself. I had never considered the concept in this way before, despite it being a common one. I am a doctor: people tell me all sorts of things in confidence because they have a clear understanding that to do so is the best way to allow me to understand their condition, and diagnose and treat them. Occasionally, much of what a patient discloses – which is often deeply private – turns out to be irrelevant. But the code of ethics, not to mention the law, around these interactions means that they can share without fear.

While the patient freely discloses the information, the way in which the information is used remains within their power. They are free to allow me to share it with colleagues if they believe that this might help them (referring them on), or equally free to restrict me from doing so. Even if something deeply embarrassing turns out to be irrelevant, the patient is left no worse off for having disclosed it – and the possibility of benefit was probably worth the disclosure.

This is a single example of the effect Jeff's book has on many of the concepts around privacy and 'publicness'. He helps the reader to assume a different viewpoint on issues. The viewpoint is often one grounded in experiences that the reader already has, or can conceive of, but which they have perhaps not understood from the viewpoint described. This is a powerful technique.

Public Parts also discusses the trickier aspects of online life. It discusses cases where people share things that they perhaps should not have, and where this lack of privacy has caused harm. But he makes a convincing point that we all need to become more 'media competent', and that making the debate about 'publicness' more mainstream will serve to educate and inform, as well as helping to craft social norms in a more considered way.

The style of writing in the book is certainly fast-paced, and I know that others have been critical of this. Few things irritate me more than incomplete, superficial arguments, and so I was a little reluctant to read this book on the basis of those reviews commenting on the fast-paced nature, which I thought would be indicative of superficiality. On the contrary, I found the book well-paced. It discusses issues concisely, not ad infinitum, which I found refreshing. It leaves the reader to do some of the work around thinking through the issues surrounding the arguments. The author does not lead the reader step-by-step through every possible permutation and combination of situations and ideas, as other authors are wont to do.

I particularly enjoyed the discussions around the historical aspects of privacy and 'publicness'. Consideration of these issues is, in my opinion, far too often framed as part of the discussion around modern technology. In reality, there is little that is new about the issues themselves, merely new situations in which they need to be applied. The discussion was illuminated by description of how these debates progressed around the new technologies of the past – from Gutenberg's printing press to Kodak's camera. Similarly, the interviews with leaders in social media (and similar fields) helped to give some real-world perspective on the theories being discussed.

It seems a shame to me that this book has received so little attention in the UK. I get the impression that it hasn't been particularly widely read, which is a shame given that its discussion is relevant to us all. It strikes me that it is a book that could catch on among the political classes, and become widely read via that route. At least, I hope it might.

This book packs an awful lot in to 250 or so pages. It's a genuinely enjoyable read that provides a large amount of food for thought. I highly recommend it.

Public Parts is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

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