Skip to main content

Burn Book: A Tech Love Story


Burn Book: A Tech Love Story

The most important event in Kara Swisher’s life occurred when she was five. Her father had a new job, running a department at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. He had just bought his first house. But before he could move his family in, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. “When you’re five, your parents are pretty much your entire world,” his daughter would write in BURN BOOK: A Tech Love Story. “It gives you a sense of the capriciousness of life: that life can change on a dime, that bad things happen, and that you survive them, you just keep going.”

Her father’s death became her superpower. It has enabled her to leap Everest-high Silicon Valley egos, survive Rupert Murdoch, launch a mega-successful conference and podcast, and become the most visible --- and feared --- writer on tech.

"My advice to Kara Swisher: Don’t mellow. Run full speed through the tape. Remember: the finish line is not the finish. Don’t stop. And especially…keep writing."

In 1987, I knew Kara through her assistant, Lisa Dickey, who pestered me to share AOL stories. Good idea. For 30 years, I was a journalist. Suddenly I was the Editorial Director of AOL. Maybe I hadn’t gone corporate. Lisa called often with questions I wouldn’t answer.

No one calls after 11pm on a Sunday night except to report a death or an emergency. Why was Kara Swisher calling? Because she was rolling through her list of AOL executives, and she knew I was a friend of AOL CEO Bob Pittman. Kara was on a mission, so our conversation was brief:

“Jesse, do you know anything about an AOL–Time Warner merger?”

“No. But I do now.”

Kara laughed. “If you hear anything tonight, write Lisa.” And she was gone.

Her piece was excellent and deeply sourced; I became a regular reader. All these years later, she’s published her third book, a memoir that’s an unofficial history of the human side of the internet --- the quirky personalities, the outsized egos and worse. “I have basically made a career out of stepping out of line,” she writes. If anything, she understates.

“When people get really rich, they seem to attract legions of enablers who lick them up and down all day. Many of these billionaires start to think of this fawning as reality, where suddenly everything that comes out of their mouths is golden…. But if you knew them in the before times and have some prior knowledge of their original selves, you either become an asset (truth-teller) or a threat (truth-teller) to them.”

Or, shorter: “When the truth stands between a man and his next $100 million, the truth is always going to be escorted off the premises.” This hasn’t stopped her. It hasn’t even slowed her down. Increasingly, she’s an unrequested analyst and advocate, moderating a non-televised episode of “The Apprentice: Nerd Edition.”

She ranks the nerds:

Mark Zuckerberg: “He wasn’t an a**hole. He was worse. He was one of the most carelessly dangerous men in the history of tech who didn’t even know it.”

Elon Musk: “The more damage he unleashed, the less he cared…. A pr*ck, started at 1, hit 12, then to infinity and beyond.”

Bill Gates: “I told him, ‘I like you 10% more because you’re married to Melinda.” [They’re now divorced.]

Steve Jobs: “8 for being a pr*ck, 10 for accomplishment.”

Jeff Bezos: “He came closest to Jobs. He reinvented commerce, saw the importance of the cloud and innovated logistics.”

Amazon: “Going to work there would have been a prescription for disaster. That said, $100 million would have been nice.”

Her opening line to Mark Cuban: “I heard you think I’m an a**hole.” [They became friends.]

A movie, William Goldman wrote, is five big moments connected by other moments. Here are some of the biggies: Zuckerberg onstage at a conference, sweating through his hoodie until Swisher made him take it off. And a chapter about the first joint interview with Gates and Jobs in 25 years. Later, Jobs told her, “The people who love you are the only ones who count. Don’t waste your time on anyone else.” And then, she writes, “Wonder of wonders, he gave me a hug.”

On a 13-hour flight to Hong Kong, she suffered a stroke and a heart attack. She married a woman who told her she wanted to be pregnant. Swisher cheered --- between them, they have four children. She continues to be “an optimistic pessimist.” She is, she says, “aware that telling smart people to think smarter comes across as rude at times.”

My take on Kara Swisher: Rachel Maddow…with a lot less shtick.

My advice to Kara Swisher: Don’t mellow. Run full speed through the tape. Remember: the finish line is not the finish. Don’t stop. And especially…keep writing.

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth for on March 1, 2024

Burn Book: A Tech Love Story
by Kara Swisher

  • Publication Date: February 27, 2024
  • Genres: Business, Economics, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982163895
  • ISBN-13: 9781982163891