2018-003: American Kingpin, Nick Bilton

“While [Ross] couldn’t talk to them about what he did for work, he could discuss what inspired him to do it. After all, in San Francisco the mentality of using technology to try to disrupt a broken system wasn’t a strange way of thinking but rather the norm. In so many ways, the programmers and entrepreneurs Ross met were just like him.”

American Kingpin, by Nick Bilton, presents the story of Ross Ulbricht, creator of the Silk Road website, and the (many) federal agencies and agents tasked with taking him and his site down. It’s a damn good read.

Because I guess I live under a rock I didn’t know anything about the story going into the book. My lady gifted it to me at Christmas; she knows me well. This was a fascinating story. It feels weird to call a real-life story about drugs and crime and murder “fun,” but there it is; I did it. I mean, it’s also horrifying, and sad, and yet, the book itself moves; it’s quite efficient as narrative nonfiction—I had a hard time putting it down. Seeing the puzzle pieces fall into place made for fast, engaging reading. It often felt hard to believe it actually all happened the way it did. And I couldn’t help but feel like I was rooting for certain people throughout. Not to name names. (Gary.)

One thing, which, for you, your mileage may vary: Bilton is not afraid to embrace the story’s inherent melodrama, the melodrama of a story about a strange guy who set out to—and, arguably, did—change the world according to his own sincere beliefs and interests, this larger-than-life character who was simultaneously a sort of complete nobody. (How American! How bifurcatey!) I appreciated that light touch—the smooth prose, the dramatic beats and hints of foreshadowing, the slightly archetypal feel of most of the “characters” involved. It felt right.

At times, it reminded me a little bit of Don Winslow’s novel The Power of the Dog. So if you liked that, you might like this, and vice-versa.

Stray thoughts, in the form of questions I’m not going to answer (publishers, if you’re looking for book club discussion questions for the paperback edition, I accept payment in Bitc—I mean, cash, huge, physical, dirty piles of cash): just how filthy rich would Ulbricht be today if he’d hung on to his freedom and his Bitcoin and sold it all at the recent inflated market peak? Also, how sympathetic of a “character” is Ulbricht? What might have happened if it had been some other wildly intelligent asshole who’d made the same leaps? Am I pissed that the book spoiled Breaking Bad, a show I swear I’m going to watch during one of my lifetimes on this planet? Could this story have existed at any other point in history—or what stories from history parallel this one, plus or minus a little PHP code ? Gary: the coolest IRS agent, or the coolest IRS agent?

“And just like other ambitious CEOs who ran other start-ups around San Francisco, [Ross] was unable to see how a single decision, made from behind a computer, could trickle down and affect an untold number of real, living human beings.”

What else I’m reading: To The Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson

I’m not the best at reading non-fiction. It’s not that I have anything against facts; rumor has it facts are great. I’m just a novel reader by habit and novels are what I pour into my limited reading time.

Still, once in a while, after a while, fiction can start to feel too airy, too groundless, and it’s nice to go read something that deals with actual people doing real things. Still then it’s a strange choice for my latest foray into non-fiction to pick up To the Finland Station, a seventy-five year old history of revolutionary thought and activity between the French and Russian revolutions. Written by an American, none the less. But it’s a book I picked up at a Borders going-out-of-business sale (R.I.P.) in a buy-on-sight worthy New York Review Books edition a while back and with last year’s partial forced reduction of the TBR pile it started rising to the top of the stacks.

I’ve been dipping in and out of it much of this year. It was slow going at first, what with it being a dark winter and the fact that reading much of anything felt like a desperate chore, but over the last month the rhythm and flow of it have really caught me and I’m actually right now letting it distract me for another couple chapters from A True Novel.

I remain a total style addict even in nonfiction I guess and the book rewards reading with an appreciation for the art of story telling. Less a strict history of facts it’s more a series of character studies of influential thinkers in the realm of revolutionary histories and thought, leading up to the current extended focus on Marx and Engels, who are rather popping off the page with energy, coming off as cranky, moody geniuses situated against those who came before them.

Wilson isn’t afraid to give voice and color to these historical figures, to quietly reveal his own potential fascinations and sympathies and raised eyebrows throughout. Of course, it was 1940, and as he admits in an introduction added in 1971, he wasn’t exactly predicting the future when it comes to the Soviet Union. Which adds a certain additional layer of historical/modern awareness for readers today, reading this history of history as, itself, history.

I’m a bit under half-way through and as it’s the midway point of the year I’ll feel pretty content if, chapter by chapter, I finish the book sometime before the end of the year. Though that said I might have to speed up the timeline a bit to start working in at least a little more non-fiction into my reading diet.