Amazonia purports to tell the story of five years in the life of Amazon.com – a biography of the company from 1996 to 2001, if you will. Those were the years that James Marcus spent as employee number 55 during the dot-com boom. It’s also, partially and not very successfully, the tale of Marcus’ relationship with the company.
Problem is, Amazon as a company is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos. More than that – Amazon is Bezos and Bezos is Amazon, one of the only people to ride out the .com boom and bust and still be captaining the ship years later. Yet Marcus is able to throw very little light on the man behind the company. His impressions are limited to his initial interview and the occasional appearance at a company picnic or event. Without that insight into its driving force, his sketch of the company becomes little more than a narrative of its office politics, in which Marcus depicts himself as a guileless victim of others’ manoeuvrings.
The personal workplace narrative can work, as a genre – just look at The Devil Wears Prada. Unfortunately, Marcus seems to have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with his former employer. He’s not sure how he feels about the company that solved all his financial problems, but also made him question his role as a journalist. He dwells on these questions rather a lot. This may have been a better, or at least more entertaining book if he’d decided Bezos was the devil and decided to stick the boot in. Instead he seems to be hobbled by his journalistic ethics and attempts to be fair to all the people he portrays. The result reminds me why I usually prefer to read fiction.
If you’re looking for insight into how the .com boom came to pass or why it failed, don’t look here. If you are interested in how Bezos created a company from scratch that went on to dominate online retailing, there is little to learn from Amazonia. The only reason to read it is to try and understand what it was like, on a personal level, to be part of a crazy time when the world seemed to go mad. Marcus still seems puzzled by the whole episode today and most probably, readers will be left feeling the same way.