262017Mar

A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover From Great Success, by Tracy Kidder

The Pulitzer Prize winner of The Soul of a New Machine (1981) and National Book Award winner of Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), has now written a biography of Paul English, founder of Kayak, a software pioneer, entrepreneur and philathropist.

English’s life is a fascinating story of the Internet boom and the beginnings of the online start-up culture. The book’s subtitle came from one of his colleagues, who early on said: “Someday this boy’s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I’m going to be standing beside him.” He was, and the trucks keep coming.

With Kayak, English’s most well-known company, he has made billions of dollars as an entrepreneur and geek during a time when venture capitalists gamble on the Next Big Thing — such as Facebook, Snapchat or Uber. Kidder provides an engaging and engrossing story of the Internet era and English as an endearing, generous maverick. When Kayak sold for nearly $2 billion, English’s first thought was to give most of the money away to good causes — to help homeless people in Boston and fund health care and education in Haiti. Beyond his genuine philanthropic instincts, however, his “recovery from great success” also relates to the underlying, but uplifting tale of how he adapted through his adult life to a diagnosed bipolar disorder that has stoked his creative fires but also created challenges and problems in his personal life. In his 20’s, English was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For a long time, he kept this diagnosis a secret. But today, he is open and courageous about discussing it. Kidder raises interesting questions like are English’s manic periods responsible for his entrepreneurial boldness? Or does he succeed in spite of them?

English was born into a large working-class Boston family and discovered he had a natural affinity for computers and foresaw the digital revolution. He was not a stellar student and hacked into his Boston Latin School teacher’s computer to alter his grades and attendance. “He had a mind for the age that was coming,” Kidder writes with understatement. After college, his programming talents led to engineering jobs at Interleaf and Intuit. His innovative approach led to management opportunities. Soon, he was running companies; then creating them, making them successful, and selling them for fortunes.

Kidder writes with his signature strength and narrative nonfiction is his specialty. This book, like his previous ones, puts extraordinary people in the context of their times and deals with some of his favorite themes – technology, philanthropy and human obsession. This is a very readable biography and also a study of the new American economy.

Luba Sawczyn is the Branch Manager of the Graham Public Library.  She can be reached at lsawczyn@alamancelibraries.org or (336) 570-6730