Review: “Burn Book”

A new book by tech's most well-known journalist is readable, interesting, and unflinching

The back of Kara Swisher’s new book — Burn Book: A Tech Love Story — has three quotes from people she’s interviewed over the years, and they are redolent of sentiments or statements I’ve also heard from readers in one form or another:

  • “Well, you are right.”
  • “People are afraid of her, and they trust her.”
  • “You’re an asshole.”

Such is the life of those of us who aspire to journalism and don’t shy away from what they observe.

Of course, Swisher is the real deal, making any gesture I make in that direction rather feeble. Yet, I sense a kindred spirit — someone who puts truth first, integrity second, and feelings far down the list.

Swisher has been a pioneer in interpretive journalism, not only reporting the facts, but giving her own impression of the people, ideas, implications, and consequences — another trait that feels familiar.

Burn Book confirms Swisher’s mastery of her main subject — the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, and its uneasy pole position now in our culture — but also gives off some uncomfortable tremors of someone whose view has been narrowed to some degree by the subject matter.

That said, this is a “burn book” — a term borrowed from Mean Girls to refer to the scrapbook of unpleasant thoughts, materials, and quotes about others. And Swisher is mean. Or is that blunt? After all, many of the people she has covered — Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg — are not nice people. Rather than mean, she seems fair, describing people accurately, which means if you are a mendacious fuck, you will be called a mendacious fuck.

For instance, Swisher contrasts a young Zuckerberg with his idol, Steve Jobs:

Unlike the perpetually intriguing Jobs, Zuckerberg had almost no charm or game and it was painful how socially awkward he was then. He hemmed, he hawed, he looked anywhere but into your eyes.

Is telling the truth mean? Does it make you an asshole?

Swisher uses that term in a pivot at the end of the chapter devoted to Zuckerberg and Facebook to move us to a worse character:

No, Zuckerberg wasn’t an asshole. He was worse. He was one of the most carelessly dangerous men in the history of technology who didn’t even know it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the worst of them.

It was at this point I expected Elon Musk to appear, but the character who emerges as the worst is both surprising and appropriate. I won’t spoil it for you.

The power of information — and how it has been used and abused to divide society, provide license to aspiring authoritarians, harm young people, and sow misinformation — is portrayed again and again, and Swisher never flinches.

Best of all for readers, throughout Burn Book, Swisher demonstrates her sly, idiosyncratic, breezy, biting voice, making it eminently readable. There wasn’t a sentence, paragraph, or chapter I didn’t enjoy. And while the topics ping-pong between professional, social, and personal reminiscences, the threads weave together seamlessly.

It’s a really great read.

Highly recommend.

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