September 26, 2013

Jeff Bezos had a lot of thoughts about the symbolism in this one


The Amazon Book Club serves boxed bookseller tears, of course, not wine.

Jeff Bezos makes his executives read a few specific books. They are, you will be shocked to learn, boring in all the worst ways.

Bezos has been doing a series of interviews recently to help tout the latest moist nuggets of Amazon tech being dribbled onto the market. And while watching and reading these interviews can be both hilarious (never have I more enjoyed seeing a man try to ignore his urgent desire for a drink of water) and terrifying (the new Kindle customer service program is so Orwellian that the ad campaign is forced to use the phrase “I can’t see you”) they are, in the end, quite boring. Just a big evil ogre of a tech company hunched over at your door, trying to sell you a shiny new bell or whistle, ho hum.

This post about Bezos on Linkedin by Jon Fortt of CNBC stands out, though, for two reasons.

First, Linkedin is still a thing, apparently. Who knew? Good work still being a thing, guys.

Second, in his post Fortt gives us this little tidbit. Bezos, it seems,

hosted three all-day book clubs with Amazon’s top executives, capped by nice dinners at the end. Bezos said he used the books frameworks for sketching out the future of the company.

Which books? Bezos was kind enough to share the titles.

  • The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
  • The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen
  • The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt

We’ll get into those books but can we just pause for a moment and ask, an all-day book club?

This is a company that injures people, fires them, and then works to deny them unemployment, and somehow I am still shocked by the sheer cruelty of this. Close your eyes. Think of the last book club meeting you went to. Maybe it was fun, maybe it was grueling. Maybe there was boxed wine. Now, picture that discussion lasting for eight hours, probably with some sort of visual component, various charts. Charts, people! Oh, and Jeff Bezos is there. And he’s laughing. Do you see it? Can you taste the coarse gratin of boredom garnished with a delicate terror sauce? What sort of a man would do that to another human being?

And what can we say about the books Bezos enforces on his highest executives? First, that the jackets look exactly like you would imagine them to: as if they were designed by Business Q. Businessington, Secretary of the Transcontinental Serious and Upright Font Hobbyists Association. But more importantly, that they are impossibly banal. Drucker on management, a book about being a ‘disruptor’ and The Goal, which seems to be a sort of Jonathan Livingston Seagull but for supply chains: this is not hugely inspiring stuff.

That is, the books themselves may well be inspiring, so long as you agree with their baseline assumption that you could probably do with a third yacht. But the idea that the executives at a company which has more or less swallowed the book world as we know it could benefit from a business guide about how to disrupt an industry feels like giving a piloting guide to the guy in the cockpit. These guys have already disrupted things. Things like, say, the production of literature, state infrastructures, lives. Sure, they don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s too late to try to teach them how to break stuff now. That’s the part they have a handle on!

Lastly, what a disappointment all of this is. Bezos has long claimed that he’s a book guy. This was another squandered chance to prove it. Imagine if he were insisting his execs read Kawabata or Morante or George Oppen? He would still be responsible for terrible things, but maybe, just maybe, I’d relish his on-camera thirst a little less.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.