Attention geeks! Time to get with your summer reading. Your early-season book list includes one acid bath, one bona fide classic, one lively history lesson, two smart critiques, and one . . . OK, I may know how to lighten the book bag.
We regularly make mock in these pages of the day-trading crowd, but my mom says that understanding other people leads to kindness and tolerance. Pooh. If Mom wants me to be nice to day traders, she should've stopped me before I read Dumb Money: Adventures of a Day Trader (Random House, 240pp, $23.95). Now that I understand their world, the real contempt has kicked in.
Joey Anuff and Gary Wolf—you know them from suck.com—leave no stone unthrown in their portrayal of the blind dancing idiot god at the heart of the mania. A couple of years ago Anuff had enough; watching seemingly everyone else in the Bay Area make crazy money on the Net made him feel poor and envious and paranoid. (This is a feeling not uncommon to journalists covering the Net, trust me.) In he dove, with a bit of success. Unfortunately, the correct mind-set for day trading is not a "bit of" mind-set; things got weirder and Anuff got deeper into the mix, until his days became a constant CNBC thrum punctuated by panic, euphoria, regret, minor hemorrhaging, and Starbucks runs.
If this sounds like a descent into hell, please remember that suck.com has always gleefully wallowed in the fiery pit—because it is fiery, and because it is the pit. No other writers currently working could have done justice to the insanity (and witlessness) of the day-trading phenomenon the way these two have; I laughed, I cried, I snurfed latte up my nose. And I started reading Suck again. Damn you, Anuff and Wolf. Damn you.
Ben Franklin's Web Site (Privacy Journal, 408pp., $27.50) sounds like a science-fiction title but it's an all-fact fiesta, documenting nearly 400 years of privacy in America from the Pilgrims on down. Robert Ellis Smith has been editing Privacy Journal for a decent chunk of that time (25 years), so he's the man who ought to know. What he wasn't around for personally he documents entertainingly, although cramming this much time and terrain into one relatively short book means we end up whizzing past stories and side roads that look awfully interesting.
What we get ain't hay, though. This is a must-read for privacy heads; you'll pick up everything from a good understanding of the framework of current privacy legislation to handfuls of ammo when knuckleheads tell you that the Founding Fathers had no idea of privacy—or that privacy was something that could be profoundly compromised by both the government and one's fellow citizens. And to enhance your beach-reading experience, Smith does a fabulous job of explaining how in the last century privacy came to be equated with sex, secrets, and other such matters. Eat your heart out, Danielle Steel!
You may have heard about Katie.com (EP Dutton, 208pp., $19.95), the autobiography of a girl who in early adolescence was befriended by a 23-year-old online "friend" who turned out to be a 41-year-old child molester. Now 17 and college bound, with her assailant tried and convicted in one of the first cases of its type, Katherine Tarbox has written up her experience.
This can't have been easy for her, and the story is one of coming to terms with the incident being Not Her Fault. In fact the very language of Katie.com—flat, affectless, and about as thrilling as any 13-year-old's diary—reminds the reader that no matter how bright, no matter how thoughtful, a 13-year-old girl can't be expected to deal effectively with sexual advances. A younger teenager is not an adult.
Nor, unfortunately, is she a writer, at least not yet. Katie.com was the object of a lively bidding war; it would be nice to report that the flurry of attention had more to it than, apparently, prurient interest. But the story line whiffs of editing for easy conversion to the TV-movie script this is destined to become. I yearned for the book to do what books do well—spend less time describing mundane visuals (I know so much more now about how to squeeze zits than I ever, ever wanted to) and more time telling the story. There's material aplenty here but little insight; I realize she's 17, but a better editor would have helped Tarbox gain insight on her material—or encouraged her to wait until her skills equaled her story.
Skimming: Last year's Information Ecologies: Using Technology With Heart (MIT Press, 246pp., $15.95) is out in paperback and worth your time if you haven't thought lately about how you integrate the ever-swelling Information Age flood with the rest of your world. Authors Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day offer a smart analysis of the limits (good and bad) of innovation, steering a middle course between gearheaded optimism and technophobic pessimism. Educators and parents in particular should read up on what Nardi and O'Day see in the schools as computers are integrated, sort of, into the classroom.
Patricia Aufderheide doesn't restrict her cultural commentary to the Net in The Daily Planet: A Critic on the Capitalist Culture Beat (University of Minnesota Press, 376pp., $19.95), roaming from film criticism to media analysis to politics. Aufderheide, a senior editor of In These Times, is a longtime policy wonk on telecom issues, and her thoughts on such matters as public-access cable are increasingly relevant in the mega-media-outlet-plus-cable-system-corporation era. These chewy essays probably shouldn't be ingested in one gulp, but any writer with a firm grasp on both where content comes from and the infrastructure that brings it to you is someone you ought to be reading.
Finally, techish history buffs rejoice: Fire in the Valley, that seminal history of the early days of the industry, has been rereleased with a nifty companion CD-ROM (McGraw-Hill, 560pp, $34.95). Authors Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine were on the scene when many of the industry's current players were in grammar school; for those of us who don't remember this stuff firsthand, this zippy, gossipy book is a vast and entertaining education, even if the focus is still mainly pre-Web (and pre-Microsoft-vs.-DOJ). Indispensable.