Reviews — From the December 2013 issue

The Mercenary Position

Can Amazon change its predatory ways?

( 2 of 5 )

Jeffrey Preston Bezos was born on January 12, 1964, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The surname on his birth certificate was not Bezos but Jorgensen — after his biological father, Ted, surely one of the few professional unicyclists to figure in entrepreneurial history, even as a footnote. His mother, Jacklyn Gise, had married Jorgensen while she was still in high school, but the marriage soon fell apart. In 1968, Gise married a petroleum engineer named Miguel Bezos and moved to Houston, where her new husband worked for Exxon.

From his adoptive father, who had fled Castro’s Cuba as a teenager, Bezos inherited what Stone calls “a libertarian aversion to government intrusion into the private lives and enterprises of citizens.” From his maternal grandfather, a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission official who retired early to a ranch in Cotulla, Texas, he learned to repair windmills, grade roads, and castrate bulls.

The young Bezos quoted Star Trek episodes from memory and built a succession of robots, hovercraft, and booby traps, as well as a battery-powered gizmo with rotating mirrors he called an “infinity cube.” (The last was modeled on a similar item at Radio Shack, but, Bezos bragged, his was much cheaper.)

(Bezos was valedictorian of his high school, and in 1986 he earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton. A few years after graduating he began working at D. E. Shaw & Co., a hedge fund whose hiring criteria, according to Stone, favored “big brains with unusual backgrounds, lofty academic credentials, and more than a touch of social cluelessness.” The firm’s founder, David Shaw, was also a computer scientist, and he treated his business as a laboratory for high-tech innovation.

Bezos was assigned to look for investment opportunities arising from the growth of the Internet — Web traffic in 1994 was expanding at an annual rate of 230,000 percent. Shaw would later help create Juno, among the earliest free email services, and FarSight Financial Services, an online stock-trading platform that he sold to Merrill Lynch. But his underling latched on to e-commerce and the idea of an “everything store” whose flagship product — the thin end of the industry-destroying wedge — would be books.

For a brief period, Bezos considered launching his online bookstore under the auspices of D. E. Shaw. But in the end, he struck out on his own, inspired in part by Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, from which Bezos distilled what he called a “regret-minimization framework” — an unusual response to Ishiguro’s soft-spoken, melancholy narrative.

is executive editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.

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