My expectations were low when I began reading James Marcus’ “Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut.” Not only was the bludgeoning lack of subtitle subtlety discouraging, but I also felt a weary despair: How many times had this story already been told — if not about Amazon, then about a hundred other dot-coms? Regular guy lucks out, gets stock options, becomes rich, then loses it all, (or almost all) in the dot-com crash. Boo fucking hoo.
But Marcus is not a regular guy, and “Amazonia” is not a regular dot-com book. As befits a tale told about a bookstore, “Amazonia” is an exquisitely written literary delight that is both personal and ambitious.
Marcus (a former regular book reviewer for Salon) was hired in 1996 by Amazon, brought in on the editorial side to concoct book reviews and otherwise add “content” to the Web site. For several years, he edited Amazon’s home page, which means his handiwork was seen by millions, and his choice of what book to feature could have an immediate and significant impact on its sales. (Most book reviewers can only dream of such mighty power.) His early hiring by the company gives him a good look at larger-than-life figures like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, but his editorial role also makes him a management outsider. Like us, Amazon’s consumers, he often learned of major events at his own company by reading the newspaper.
In the excerpt published in Salon, Marcus focuses on wealth, its attainment and then loss. This might seem like a cliché, but in the chapter Marcus quotes Emerson, Tolstoy, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, as well as more familiar characters like venture capitalist John Doerr and TV star Regis Philbin. Clichés are transformed into poetry. He weaves the rags to riches and back to rags story of his own grandparents, Jewish émigrés from Russia “one step ahead of the Cossacks,” who became wealthy jewelry retailers but lost everything in the Great Depression, with his own story of stock option rollercoastering.
Salon chose to publish that excerpt because it most perfectly captures the essence of “Amazonia” as a whole. Marcus takes a story that most of us already know — the giddy euphoria of the late ’90s stock market — and turns it into a riveting, personal document. Marcus convinces us that he does not and did not really care about the money; instead, he cared about the books. And to have someone who loves books write a book about Amazon, “the world’s largest bookstore,” is a real treat.
We’ve said it here before, and we’ll say it again, the best books about the dot-com era are not the ones that got the big advances and the megahype. With few exceptions those titles were also the ones written most quickly, in crass, brassy attempts to capitalize on the nation’s post-traumatic stress disorder while the stock market was still in shambles.
The best books turn out to be the ones that incubated for years, the ones in which every word is chosen with a diamond cutter’s precision, the ones in which it is clear that the author caught his breath and took the time to reflect upon what it all meant. The best books prove that you can cover territory that has already been trampled over and still be fresh. That you can grapple with the absurdity of an entire era without mocking or making fun of it.
“It’s hard to write about the Internet boom and bust without an insulating layer of irony,” writes Marcus. “Without it you’re too exposed, somehow: you succumb to a kind of narrative hypothermia, start shivering, and lay down your pen.”
There are moments of irony in “Amazonia,” as well as moments of some pathos; it’s hard to read the sections on Marcus’ replacement by automated computer programs without thinking, well, what did you expect when you signed up with a Web site? But for the most part, Marcus succeeds in keeping warm and keeping his pen in hand. It will be amusing to see how many copies of “Amazonia” are sold on Amazon.com. If there’s any justice, the answer will be “plenty.”