The Circle

The CircleA bunch of my tech friends have asked me to suggest a book  to read over the holidays. My unambiguous recommendation is The Circle by Dave Eggers.

I think it’s one of the best books I read this year. I’m an unabashed Eggers fan. My favorites of his are A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story and Zeitoun. I also have a giant literary crush on everything McSweeney’s.

The early literary reviews of The Circle were awesome while the reviews by people in the tech community were mixed to negative. The tech criticism was weak and felt like it lacked depth. Most of it was “hey – Eggers doesn’t really understand how this stuff works” or “Eggers doesn’t use this stuff therefore his book sucks” kind of stuff.

The Circle was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony.”

We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

Eggers completely disassembles this through a deeply engaging story with vibrant characters. Some of the characters are recognizable composites of well known people from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a few other large bay area tech companies. Some are unknowns, but broad representations of archetypes of the people that work throughout these companies. And some are random players.

They combine in a magical way as the story unfolds. Large parts of the book are uncomfortably close to home, shining an absurd light just a little to0 brightly on stuff we talk about – in private, and in public – all the time.

And then – boom – Eggers does what he does best. As the pressure builds, he makes his point, over and over again. With a relentless drumbeat of character destruction. In a way that is cringeworthy to an extreme. Where you vacillate between “she deserved that” and “shit, that’s just not right.” And, as you take a deep breath and process what just happens, he does it again.

All the little circles with numbers on them on my phone are bothering me right now. All the dots, numbers, flashing, and bouncing things on my laptop reminds me how absurd this has all become. While Eggers shoves it in our faces with The Circle, the end-state implications of this is prescient, especially in a Snowden-like (or should we say Orwellian) world.

Powerful stuff. And really fun to read.

  • Seth McGuire

    Nice. Margaret Atwood’s great review put it on my list ( but sounds like it should move to the top.

    • Yeah – especially given what you do for a living!

  • Thanks! Just spent my audible credit. I’m always down for anything with mixed to negative reviews from the tech community… must be on to something….

    • Hah! The contrarian abides.

      • Just finished the Audible version, great voice acting on that one. This book really resonated with me, and while not perfect, was a great recommendation. thanks. Not see what I can do to prevent closing the circle….

  • Great to see a novel with literary aspirations reviewed here! I really wanted to like The Circle, but thought the characters lacked depth… They seem to move forward through the baubles of eerily, not-too-distant social/surveillance tech as if pulled by moving walkway, without any real interiority. I enjoyed recognizing the familiar personalities and memes, but ultimately cared less about their implications because they deflected so readily off of Mae and co. Also Eggers seems vacillate between satire and dystopian admonition in the general tone of the novel, which left me unsure whether to laugh or donate to Snowden’s legal defense fund… could it have been more focused at half length? In any case, great to see Eggers tackle the tech industry.

    • If you were vacillating between laughing and supporting Snowden, I think you feel deep into a classic Eggers love triangle. Eggers, you, and your emotions. I’ve always felt that in his books – part hilarity, part I want to jump up and down and scream. That’s part of the beauty of his writing – at least to me.

      And I LOVE the word “interiority” – I’d never heard it before – it’s perfect.

      • Haha, you may be right. I guess I hoped for more from the transitions.. Some of the bleaker passages kept me from getting back into the verve.. That said, when he skewers the Circle’s HR policies, he goes all the through and comes out the other side.

        By the way for a sustained satirical supertech satori, I highly recommend “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart if you have not read it already.

  • This book has come up in about 3 “circles” recently, so I’ve started it. I wonder if this whole NSA thing was just to make the book more realistic – nah, Google is Circle enough all by itself. I can’t help but think the Circle is to Google what Player Piano (Vonnegut) was to IBM.

    • Oooh – good analogy!

  • Great review. A must read in the tech community. We now refer to the Circle in many conversations. Scary and very much a story of our the times. Loved it

  • DJ

    Just got this book as a gift and looking forward to it. I love Eggers’ other stuff.

  • bobmonsour

    An excellent read. It was recommended by several friends. My favorite line, about half way through was “We keep these to a minimum, though, because we know you need to concentrate.” I think this was after they gave Mae her 5th screen and started the audio surveys.

    I also kept thinking that the tear inside of Mae was her deep down belief that this was all very wrong (it turns out that I was the one that was wrong).

  • This book was awesome, as is par for the course for your recommendations. Thank you.

    • Thx! I’ll keep reading, and I’ll keep reviewing,

  • an important endorsement. good job Brad Feld.