He got the inside story on Facebook

Plus, a gun-down of food-world icons, Beethoven’s ninth, McGill and the Dead Sea scrolls, a literary classic and an even-handed treatment of Rush Limbaugh

The Facebook Effect
David Kirkpatrick

As a business genre, the “inside story” of a corporation’s rise to glory tends to suffer from either a lack of access to key people and colourful backroom details, or the heavy-handed feel of a public relations department at work. But while David Kirkpatrick’s treatment of Facebook risks falling into the latter category—“Facebook co-operated extensively . . . as did CEO Mark Zuckerberg”—the social networking giant’s meteoric growth (it now boasts nearly half a billion users) and all the talk about it one day supplanting Google means any insight into Zuckerberg’s thinking is a welcome development—and not just because of the 26-year-old CEO’s reputation as being as difficult to read as he is brilliant.

Perhaps the book’s biggest revelation is the degree to which Zuckerberg is possessed by a long-term vision for Facebook as a tool to humanize the Web. His steadfast belief that sharing information—much of it personal—makes society better off is, according to Kirkpatrick, at the root of most of the privacy debate currently enveloping the company. It sounds like PR spin, but the sheer number of times Zuckerberg has stubbornly refused rich takeover offers from deep-pocketed suitors, ranging from Microsoft to Viacom, lends credence to the idea that he’s driven by more than just dollars.

Facebook’s transformation from Harvard dorm room start-up to Silicon Valley phenomenon is a fascinating tale: the rented home office in Palo Alto, Calif., that hosted raucous parties in addition to late night coding sessions; the culture clash between young programmers and older executives; and, notably, Zuckerberg’s frustrating ambivalence (for investors at least) about the need for a business model. Where Kirkpatrick falls short is his reluctance to take a critical stance on key questions, including a lawsuit by three former Harvard students who claim Facebook was their idea, and whether it’s time for Zuckerberg to hand over the CEO’s chair to a more experienced executive. Then again, Zuckerberg’s strong-willed idealism may be what’s needed to rule Facebook and its nearly 500 million users, an unwieldy population that needs a great leader as much as it does a good manager.

Medium Raw: A bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook
Anthony Bourdain

By “bloody valentine,” Anthony Bourdain must have been thinking “massacre.” That would explain the former chef’s gleeful gun-down of such sacrosanct food-world icons as Alice Waters and the “supremely irrelevant old f–ks” who run the James Beard House. Bourdain’s loathing for one well-known food writer is so intense he gives him his own chapter: “Alan Richman is a Douche.”

The former heroin addict and “angry f–k-up” claims to have mellowed since coming to fame a decade ago with Kitchen Confidential, an exposé that warned diners never to order fish on Monday—a directive Bourdain now recants. Then again, he also claims to abhor pretense and the “douche-oriented economy” while dropping that there’s a “Francis Bacon in the crapper” on Adnan Khashoggi’s yacht. But to read Bourdain for consistency is to go to McDonald’s for nutrition. He describes the best meal of his life, a Rabelaisian blow-out at the French Laundry, then writes it left him “struggling mightily not to spray truffle-flecked chunks into the toilet.” And he praises Chicago chef Grant Achatz, while describing a meal at his Alinea as one of the “longest and least pleasurable” of his life; one course was “a slab of pork belly, dangling senselessly from a toy clothesline.”

Bourdain offers ribald relief amid culinary-world suck-ups. He recalls a run-in with Food Network star Sandra Lee (the “hellspawn of Betty Crocker and Charles Manson”) who got inappropriately touchy-feely: “the feel of Sandra’s icy predatory claws working their way up my spine and around my hips—like some terrifying alien mandibles.”

Bourdain’s at his best using his platform to honour unsung kitchen heroes, devoting a chapter to Justo Thomas’s daily deboning of 700 lb. of fish at New York’s Le Bernardin. Later, he takes the kitchen worker to eat there for his first time. Finally, one funny valentine with not a splatter of blood.

The Ninth
Harvey Sachs

Beethoven’s ninth and last symphony is no longer the longest piece of music ever written, but it’s still the biggest; Sachs, a veteran music writer, notes that the revolutionary choral “Ode to Joy” finale has been one of the greatest influences on the arts, and its celebration of universal justice has been appropriated by every political movement. How did one symphony become a phenomenon greater than music itself? That’s what Sachs seeks to find out by writing not only about the music (which he describes in great detail), but the political and social movements of the time: in an era of government crackdowns against the ideals of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, Beethoven’s music was part of a “rearguard action against repression.”

Sachs also shows us how the symphony helped to create the modern idea of what he calls “the cult of genius.” Before Beethoven, artists were supposed to please the public—or their rich patrons. Beethoven did what he wanted and the public had to have “a willingness to meet him halfway.” Sachs demonstrates how this idea was taken up not only by composers like Wagner, but writers and thinkers who saw Beethoven as a representative of artistic independence.

What Sachs doesn’t do, surprisingly, is tell us much about the musical world the ninth existed in. Except for a few throwaway references, we barely hear about the other music being played in 1824, or its similarities and differences with Beethoven’s. So while we know that the audience was surprised by the music, we don’t quite know what they were expecting. Just because Beethoven couldn’t hear the music of his era is no reason we shouldn’t know what it was like.

Rush Limbaugh
Zev Chafets

In the acknowledgement to his even-handed biographical treatment of the right-wing American political and media phenomenon Rush Limbaugh, Chafets writes that almost no New York publisher was interested in a Limbaugh book “that didn’t have the word ‘idiot’ or ‘liar’ in the title.” A slight exaggeration (perhaps), but a believable one, and one that fits Chafets’s persuasively argued theme. Regardless of the merits of the liberal case against Limbaugh, after 20 years of derision he is flourishing, perhaps more than ever—Hollywood-level rich and 2008 Barack Obama-level influential. By the time of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Limbaugh had become the de facto head of the Republican party. His no-compromise militancy was crucial in sinking the new President’s search for bipartisanship and wreaked considerable damage on what looked, only two years ago, like a new Democratic ascendancy. His political enemies really ought to consider taking him seriously.

Limbaugh, 59, came out of Missouri a fairly typical baby boomer. He didn’t register to vote until he was 35. On the two burning questions of boomer politics, Limbaugh smoked dope twice, inhaling both times, and happily avoided the draft via a convenient if inglorious medical exemption—a cyst on his buttocks. Much-married, a smoker and a drinker, personally tolerant of all sexual orientations, he is emphatically not a member of the evangelical wing of his party. He is, instead, a small-government, free-enterprise fundamentalist.

Limbaugh’s true opposite number, Chafets argues, is not a liberal political figure but another media titan, Oprah Winfrey. His radio audience, 72 per cent male, exactly mirrors Oprah’s 72 per cent female TV viewers. Both audiences idolize their stars, who both use their personal struggles—in Limbaugh’s case, addiction to prescription drugs and deafness—to forge emotional bonds with them. American liberals, having seen a succession of political anti-Limbaughs fail utterly on the radio, might consider appealing to Winfrey.

Canada’s Big Biblical Bargain
Jason Kalman and Jaqueline S. du Toit

Most Canadians know something of the Dead Sea scrolls: the first discovery in 1947 by Bedouin nomads after two millennia buried in a cliffside cave, and subsequent finds over the next nine years in 10 other caves; the controversy the texts have sparked over what they reveal about early Judaism and the origins of Christianity; and the endless debate over who owns them now, still making news last year as the scrolls visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

What few realize, however, is that a key portion of the scrolls was once set to be permanently housed in Montreal. Half of the 16 scrolls shown at the ROM, in fact, were purchased from their Bedouin finders by a Jerusalem museum with money provided by McGill University. Its $20,000 contribution bought 500 manuscript fragments and, according to Kalman and du Toit, was crucial to keeping the collection intact and available to scholars. In exchange, McGill was promised ownership.

But the politics of the scrolls, described ably (if with a certain academic dryness) by Kalman and du Toit, is almost as fascinating as their contents. Neither Israel nor Jordan could lay claim to the territory in which the first find was made—Israel didn’t even exist—but after the 1948 partition war, the Jordanian kingdom occupied it and East Jerusalem, where the finds were housed. When the 1952 discovery of thousands of tiny fragments in Cave 4 prompted a worldwide call for financial aid from academic centres, McGill was the first to respond, using a donation from a member of the Birks jewellery family.

The scrolls never arrived in Montreal. After years of anguished diplomatic correspondence, and rising Arab nationalism, Jordan announced in 1961 that they were too precious to the 15-year-old kingdom’s “indivisible history” (and, as royal officials privately noted, its tourist trade) to ever permanently depart. The university was reimbursed. It was an understandable decision by the Jordanians, but the fragments didn’t bring them benefits for long: when Israel took East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, it moved the scrolls—as a key part of its heritage—to Israel proper, a legally questionable move still under protest in Toronto in 2009.

Scout, Atticus & Boo
by Mary McDonagh Murphy

Everybody agrees Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel. What everyone can’t agree on is what makes it so great.

There is no questioning the novel’s remarkable success or longevity. This classic of youth and racism in small-town Alabama during the Great Depression has been in print continually since it was written in 1960. It won Lee a Pulitzer Prize and the admiration of readers everywhere. It’s also the only novel Lee, who still lives in Monroeville, Ala., ever wrote.

In honour of the book’s 50th anniversary, Murphy attempts to nail down some of the reasons behind the Mockingbird phenomenon. Murphy interviewed many of the novel’s most famous fans for a TV documentary and collects 26 of those transcripts in this book. According to Murphy’s informants, the book’s secret lies in its precise sketch of small-town life. Or its searing examination of injustice. Or the memorable characters of Scout, the precocious tomboy narrator, her straight-arrow lawyer father Atticus Finch, and shadowy anti-hero Boo Radley.

All are perfectly valid reasons, of course. Unfortunately, Scout, Atticus & Boo suffers from frequent repetition of these possibilities. And too many of the sources seem to be other writers politely envious of the fact that Lee only had to write one thing to establish her towering reputation. “Look, I wish I’d written the book,” says black novelist James McBride, summarizing the majority view.

The most interesting comments tend to come from less competitive participants. Rosanne Cash, daughter of country singer Johnny Cash, calls the book “a guide to parenting.” Oprah Winfrey claims it laid the groundwork for her famous television book club. After she read it in grade school, Winfrey pestered everyone she knew to give it a read as well. All said, if you’re looking to celebrate the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, you might as well read the original one more time and decide for yourself why it’s still great.
– Peter Shawn Taylor