Author: Joseph Menn
Summary: A potentially interesting story told in a dry and problematic way.
This is the story of seventeen-year-old Shawn Fanning’s creation of the program that would become Napster and the disastrous company formed around it. From the beginning, Shawn’s huckster uncle assured himself a large stake in the company. His subsequent mismanagement made it even harder for the company to deal with technical and legal challenges. This account reveals the private, internal power struggles that accompanied the very public legal battle between Napster and the music industry.
I found the concept of this story much more interesting than the execution. One problem was the sheer number of characters to keep track of. A character list would have been extremely helpful, since the author frequently didn’t do enough to help me remember who everyone was. The biggest problem, though, was the writing. There was a lot of interpersonal drama, but I didn’t feel invested in it or curious about the outcome. I’ve read several books that describe court cases in engaging ways (Love Wins, Then Comes Marriage), but this was not one of them. I think more detail and more suspenseful writing would have helped. This was true of the technical challenges as well.
There were also a few character descriptions that struck me problematic. The first Napster CEO was a woman and I definitely think the contributed to the criticisms other people had of her performance in that role. I could wouldn’t blame the author for this if those descriptions were exclusively in quotes from the characters, but the author also describes her as both motherly and overly emotional. The narrator descriptions of some of the male characters also seemed more negative than the character quotes warranted. And his first example of weird people at the Napster office was to mention that some were transgender.
This could have been a great story. The true events had all the ingredients necessary for that to happen. Unfortunately, the writing was not engaging. It was also sometimes problematic in terms of both gender representation and author impartiality. It was a detailed account of the Napster story with lots of insider accounts, but I’d only recommend it if that topic really grabs you.