Class consciousness in The Accidental Billionaires
I just finished reading The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich‘s 2009 book about the founding of Facebook. Putting aside the book’s literary merits (the story’s compelling, at least), I was struck by the undercurrent of social and class mores that run through the book.
I grew up in a distressed area of a downtrodden city in the middle of Canada (okay, it was Winnipeg). In my family, the idea of going to university was as remote as going to Israel to live on a kibbutz – actually, the kibbutz probably was more likely. If it wasn’t for my own initiative, I probably never would have gone on to post-secondary education (about which the less said, the better).
So reading The Accidental Billionaires I couldn’t help but compare my own circumstances to those of these entitled Americans, even if I’m a couple generations off. These guys—whether Mark Zuckerberg or the Winkelvoss twins or any of other characters populating the book—were all destined to walk a gold-paved road. It was hard not to hope one, if not all, would develop a crack habit.
It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that we actually feel sympathy for (some of) these guys in The Social Network. I was less affected by the story (i.e., Zuckerberg’s betrayal of his friend Eduardo Saverin, his supposed ripping-off of the Winkelvoss twins) as presented in Mezrich’s book, however. No doubt that this was at least in part because of actors like Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, and Aaron Sorkin’s script.
But it is instructive reading Edith Wharton afterwards. In House of Mirth (1905), To stay afloat, Lily Bart must navigate upper-crust of New York. What she goes through a century earlier than the events in The Accidental Billionaires is really not that different from the way Zuckerberg and Saverin must negotiate their way in Harvard’s hierarchy.
Reading the two books back to back, I’m struck by a couple of thoughts. One, that the class system in North America, which has always been with us but seldom actually acknowledged, is finally a part of the greater conversation. And two: has the Facebook generation found its Edith Wharton yet?