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last updated: july 1

The Last Page
by Rachel Singer Gordon

nudist The most common description of the Internet, the one most calculated to catch a reader's attention, is the poignant: "There's no there, there." As Po Bronson notes in his newest tome, The Nudist on the Late Shift, a similar thing can be said of the physical place most closely tied to the Internet's growth -- Silicon Valley. There's no monument, no landmark one can point to as epitomizing the place; even Bill Gates' neo-Barbie Dream house defies the gravity of the Valley with its implacable presence all the way up north in Redmond.

Perhaps partially due to this paucity of opportunity to expound on Silicon Valley as a place, journalistic attention to its environs has generally focused on the Valley's Generation-X self-made millionaires with the kind of breathless exuberance also reserved for overpriced movie stars and Michael Jordan. This approach does guarantee a bit more excitement than a discussion of the endless cubicle farms and overpriced real estate that to many define not only Silicon Valley but corporate America in general, but it overlooks the essence of what truly gives the place its importance: The stories behind its people and what makes them tick.

Just as the "thereness" of the Internet depends on the willingness of its denizens to project their presence online, via email, homepages, online communities or even cyber-shopping, the thereness of Silicon Valley rests on the willingness of its residents and hopeful visitors to extend themselves in creating a culture of belief in the actuality of things both potential and imaginary. Nowhere else could a couple of folks with a good idea find both the capital and brainpower to make it real. Nowhere else could an idle brainstorm lead to a multi-million dollar IPO or an eventual lucrative buyout from Microsoft or other corporate behemoth.

But see how easy it is to get caught up talking about the money?

Therein lies one of the weaknesses of Bronson's book: Although he explicitly states his lack of susceptibility to the obsession with money that plagues much writing about Silicon Valley's nouveaux riches, he spends a good portion of his time discussing specific dollar amounts as well as musing on the amazing capacity of his subjects to block out the potential for loss or fail to spend the money they have acquired.

Bronson does provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a variety of the Valley's residents -- both great success stories and moderate failures -- and their various motivations. At his best, he approaches a younger Studs Terkel, trolling the Valley for people's stories and letting their own words shine through. Unlike Terkel, however, Bronson displays an unfortunate propensity to interject himself into the stories of others to the point where the narrative becomes less about the Valley and more about Bronson's actions within and reactions to it. In the end, the reader is left with little incentive to care about his subjects.

All that aside, Nudist does take a refreshing approach. Bronson's readers might have been better served, however, by a series of articles rather than a book-length project. In the end, there is not enough there, there to sustain or contextualize his pastiche of stories. Bronson provides no historical background, no narrative structure to carry the reader through his book.

On the Internet, the reader viewer is able to impose his or her own narrative, following links according to patterns of interest or relation to each other in the reader's mind. This creates an internally consistent order for that browser. In a book, however, the reader is stuck with the flow provided by the author, whose responsibility it is to maintain narrative structure, keep the reader's interest, and deliver whatever message or messages s/he wishes to impart.

Bronson gets so caught up in the no there, there motif that he fails to do the above, therefore unfortunately failing to deliver on the promise of some truly fine pieces of writing.

The book therefore will be of greatest interest to Valley dwellers who will scan its pages for mention of themselves, their friends, or their competitors. The wider audience Bronson aims for, the middle Americans who lack an understanding of the culture and motivations of the place's residents, will find little to interest them here -- which is unfortunate, because he in the end is worth reading merely for the flashes of insight which can be gained from his snapshots of Valley residents. Those with the background to be intrigued by his subjects may dip into his prose and find themselves refreshed.


b i o
Rachel Singer Gordon is a reference computer services librarian with an affinity for both books and technology.


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