Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Few Good Books

Below are a few recommendations if you're looking for some heavy, but enjoyable, Holiday reading along with reviews (not by me).

The Ascent of Money can be a bit of a slog, and Fergusson gets starry-eyed around the multi-billionaires he (met and) writes about (Bill Gross of PIMCO comes to mind). But the Ascent of Man was made possible by the Ascent of Money and this is a great grounding in how that worked out.

Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance says it all in the subtitle: the bankers who broke the world. It is an amazing book, describing what can best be called a rickety house of cards that was the global monetary system of the interwar years overseen by men devoted to (or blinded by, take your pick) the gold standard and reparations.

Finally, Tom Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter is a well-written account of Sir Isaac Newton's time as the head of the Royal Mint and his work in capturing (and seeing executed) one of the more notorious counterfeiters of his age. Well-written, and you can meet the author over at his blog, The Inverse Square Blog. Levenson's book was just named #5 on New York Magazine's list of the 10 Best Books of 2009.

THE ASCENT OF MONEY: A Financial History of the World By Niall Fergusson
Niall Ferguson makes a strong, compelling case for the development of money and banking as a catalyst for the advancement of civilization. Yet while some critics praised his clear, comprehensible writing, punctuated with anecdotes and historical details, others were nonplussed by his explanations and narrative detours. Several critics also bemoaned the book's choppy and uneven structure—an echo of the episodic, six-part television series it was meant to accompany. So it seems the UK critics liked the book less because they had seen the show. Though perhaps best suited to readers with a fundamental understanding of financial terms and theories, Ferguson's latest work provides valuable insight into the inner workings of the global economy, past and present. For interested readers, it demonstrates how our current fiscal meltdown fits into the bigger historical picture and laments humanity's perennial inability to learn from this history.

LORDS OF FINANCE: The Bankers Who Broke the World By Liaquat Ahamed
The parallels with our own moment are impossible to miss in Ahamed’s narrative about four members of “the most exclusive club in the world,” central bankers who dominated global finance in the post-World War I era. Ahamed, a longtime investment manager, evokes in glittering detail a volatile time of financial bubbles followed by busts, all of it guided by players wedded to economic orthodoxy.

NEWTON AND THE COUNTERFEITER: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist ~ Thomas Levenson
Sir Isaac Newton -- bookish, asexual, harboring an uncool obsession with alchemy -- doesn't sound much like Humphrey Bogart. But after his famous apple-beaning inspired a mechanical portrait of our universe that would stand unchallenged for 200 years, the godfather of the Enlightenment used his plush sinecure at the Royal Mint to wage a war on counterfeiters that demanded very real gumshoe-ing. Thomas Levenson's "Newton and the Counterfeiter" presents the physicist's vendetta against "coiner" William Chaloner as a battle of wits between a genius polymath trying to reform the British Empire's monetary policy and a dastardly native of London's criminal underworld circa 1695. A pop-science writer who has made Einstein, acoustics and meteorology intelligible to the right-brained, Levenson transforms inflation and metallurgy into a suspenseful detective story bolstered by an eloquent summary of Newtonian physics and stomach-turning descriptions of prison life in the Tower of London. Shortly after abandoning his Cambridge library for the filthy metropolis, Levenson writes, Newton "managed incredibly swiftly to master every dirty job required of the seventeenth-century version of a big-city cop." Like "Heavenly Intrigue," the 2004 book that posits that great astronomer Johannes Kepler murdered greater astronomer Tycho Brahe, "Newton and the Counterfeiter" humanizes a legend, transforming him into a Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of his own private Moriarity.