Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reading good writers

For the segment of the U.S. that reads one, or two books per year, the name Michael Lewis is most likely associated with his 2001 title, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, if they’ve heard of him at all.

Moneyball was the first Michael Lewis book I’d read, and I had this to say about Lewis, the author, back in a December 2005 blog post about Moneyball:

“Lewis is a wonderful writer, who is able to transport his readers into the world of his subject matter and make you forget that you are reading a book.”

What made Moneyball such a success was Lewis’s development of his story arc about the Oakland A’s, and their general manager, Billy Beane, which in turn allowed Lewis to use his skills and abilities as a writer to make the book about how Beane and Co. turned the conventional wisdom of professional baseball on its head.

After reading Moneyball, I read up on Mr. Lewis to find out about his other books. His first book was Liar’s Poker:Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which describes Lewis’s four years on Wall Street, progressing from Salomon Brothers’ trainee, to a successful bond trader, and the subsequent lessons and high-roller experiences, from 1983, through the 1987 crash.

Lewis, who graduated from both Princeton and the prestigious London School of Economics, parlayed these into a financial gig at Salomon Brothers. While Lewis traded bonds by day, he worked nights and weekends as a journalist and ended up with his first book, Liar’s Poker.

I read Liar’s Poker early this fall, after seeing it on the shelves at the local library. The jacket copy was compelling, and despite the book being 20 years old, it was remarkably pertinent and not dated at all, particularly in light of all that has been happening with the markets.

While I came to Lewis’s writing via Moneyball and another great read, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, I was aware of his financial background, and had read a few finance-related articles by him.

What sets writers like Lewis apart, I think, from most, is his ability to take a subject, almost any subject, and pull the reader into the story, particularly the human element. While I was somewhat hesitant to read Liar’s Poker, thinking it would be boring, Lewis, even in his first book, and not the writer he is today, still had the qualities of a great writer, just starting out.

From a link in the comments section at Megan McArdle’s blog, I got directed to a Lewis piece in Portfolio that might be one of the best things I’ve read on the current financial meltdown, helping to frame the issue, and show Wall Street, and capitalism’s fragile natures, and how it all came crashing down.

I highly recommend reading the article. I doubt you’ll be disappointed, and you might just learn a few things you didn’t know.

1 comment:

Eve Channing said...

Thanks for linking the "Portfolio" piece. It was a frightening and well-written article, especially the quote by one of the Wall Street guys who says "Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience."

Sigh...