Book Review: ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ by Ben Mezrich

April 22, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Here I go again, letting another book cut the queue of the books I’m supposed to be reading.  I had been interested in checking out Ben Mezrich’s (author of Bringing Down the House, the book that was made into 21) The Accidential Billionaires for ages — you know, the book that was masterfully adapted into one of the best films of last year, The Social Network — so I couldn’t help myself.

I got the e-book version in my little online shopping spree, thanks to the 30% off from the lovely but struggling folks at Borders.  I essentially started reading it yesterday morning as soon as I woke up (I keep the iPad beside the bed), and even though I was out the entire day, I somehow managed to finish the whole book before I got home.  Yes, it was a short book (with some very short chapters), but it was indeed a massive page-turner.  I can’t think of the last time I read an entire book in a day.

The Accidental Billionaires tells — in a dramatic, narrative style — the story of the founding of Facebook, from the dorms of Harvard into the biggest social networking phenomenon in the world.  I was surprised by how closely The Social Network mirrored the book in terms of plot and progression, and was even more surprised to see that Aaron Sorkin (the guy that adapted the book into the Academy Award winning screenplay) was one of the people that Mezrich thanked at the end of the book.

So if you’ve seen The Social Network, there won’t be much that in this book that you don’t already know — Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, the Winklevoss twins, Sean Parker — no wonder Mezrich thought it was a tale too extraordinary to pass up.  However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the story, even though I found myself constantly visualising scenes from the movie on just about every page.

The interesting thing about this book is that it does not read like traditional non-fiction.  Mezrich has made The Accidental Billionaires a work of ‘creative’ non-fiction using narrative techniques, including evocative descriptions and deft dramatisations.  As I read the book, I kept wondering just how much of it actually happened, because Mezrich’s primary source was Eduardo Saverin (the co-founder that was screwed over by Zuckerberg, who declined Mezrich’s attempts to contact him), who later refused to cooperate with Mezrich after his law suit against Zuckerberg was settled out of court.  Was Saverin telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or was his memory coloured by his anger towards Zuckerberg?  And honestly, did Facebook really get created because Zuckerberg and Saverin wanted to get laid?  Seriously?  Am I too old or is American college culture really that perverted?

On the other hand, Mezrich also had stacks of court transcripts at his disposal (from both the Saverin case and the ‘Winklevii’ case), as well as other eye-witness accounts and insider interviews.  But it still left a big question mark in my mind, especially because Mezrich admits to ‘re-creating dialogue’ based on the recollections of participants and the substance of their conversations.  Naturally, this meant certain conversations and correspondence may been compressed or may have never even happened.

However, thanks to Mezrich’s creative narrative techniques, The Accidental Billionaires is a crisp, enjoyable ride, albeit slightly one sided as most of it is from Saverin’s perspective.  It’s also somewhat unfortunate that Saverin stopped feeding Mezrich information after the settlement, because I think the book could have been even better.  The narrative started losing steam towards the end, probably because of the lack of information on what exactly happened, resulting in a fair bit of creative guesswork on Mezrich’s part.  Admirable effort, but it couldn’t completely disguise the problems.

3.75 out of 5

A word on the film

If there’s one thing I learned from The Accidential Billionaires, it’s that Aaron Sorkin is a screenwriting god.  In my humble opinion, The Social Network is one of those rare films that surpasses the book on which it is based.  I know David Fincher probably deserves a significant share of the credit, but Sorkin’s screenplay was phenomenal.  He managed to capture all the key scenes of the book (with little or almost no variation), which was great, but it’s the scenes he created that weren’t in the book that ended up being the most iconic scenes in The Social Network.  And the dialogue, most of which Sorkin must have just made up, kept the essence of the characters and simply elevated the story to a whole new dimension.  Mr Sorkin, I am in awe of your awesomeness.

The “I can do better” writer’s syndrome

April 22, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing by pacejmiller

Could you do better than this man?

One thing I have noticed lately, especially on forums, is that certain nameless, faceless people think they can do better than some of the biggest selling authors out there — Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Stieg Larsson — just to name a few.  Even the ones that come short of actually saying it imply it with their trashing of the author’s writing and shock that their books have sold so well.

Sorry to break it to those people, but you can’t.  If you could, you would have done it already.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with critiquing a writer or a piece of work.  Even the most revered masterpieces have their critics.  People have different tastes, and no piece of writing is ever going to please every reader.

But to say you can do better is a big call.  There is so much that goes into putting together a novel than these ‘I can do better’ people can fathom.  Sure, luck does play a role, sometimes a significant one, but at the end of the day, a mixture of skill, talent, perseverance and determination is imperative in putting together a bestseller.  And time — finding the time to actually complete it is probably the biggest obstacle of all.

The truth is, good writing alone is not enough to sell books.  It’s about meeting the demands of the market, bring at the right place at the right time, and having an interesting idea.  An idea that appeals to the masses.

Dan Brown, the creator of The Da Vinci Code, is an oft-targeted author.  His writing is, admittedly, nothing spectacular from a technical standpoint, but it’s adequate.  He also has his strengths, being an excellent craftsman of page turners.  But is that why The Da Vinci Code was such an international phenomenon?  Of course not.  It’s because he identified something when he read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and realised that it would make an awesome premise for a thriller.  At least one that would be highly controversial.

But was that all he needed, a good idea?  Of course not again.  He must have spent hundreds of hours researching and piecing the story together, and who knows how long he spent creating the novel’s many cryptic puzzles?  Then, he had to actually write the damn thing.  I recall reading somewhere that for every page of The Da Vinci Code, there were another 10 pages that ended up on the cutting room floor.  How can anyone not find that an impressive effort?

There are times when I am reading a particular writer’s work and I don’t think it is any good, and I start wondering if I can write something better.  But I tell myself that it’s one thing to tell yourself that you may have the potential ability to do it, but it’s another thing altogether to actually get it done.

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