Airplane Reading

Two books kept me company flying across the country last week—one on the world debt crisis, the other on Modernism. Heavy stuff!

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World — Michael Lewis

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern — Stephen Greenblatt

Two books kept me company flying across the country last week—one on the world debt crisis, the other on Modernism. Heavy stuff!

First, Boomerang, by Michael Lewis. This book is, and I’m sure was intended as, entertainment. And it is a lot of fun! It’s less serious journalism, more a guy with a perspective telling a story as he wants to tell it in the vein of Michael Moore; call it finance’s funnest guilty pleasure. Boomerang is a series of essays (not new—most pulled from Vanity Fair and some other previously published sources) on various world regions most affected by current debt problems.

Sound dreary? For those who would never pick up a dry analysis of global debt, this book substitutes rigorous financial thought for fast-paced story-telling. One example: Mr. Lewis quotes a scholar from UCLA who claims we have “lizard” minds, and that’s why we invest poorly. What he’s probably referring to is the so-called “Reptilian” brain, which is an artifact of the Triune brain theory, now defunct for some time in the psychological community. But the metaphor suits the story, and so we go merrily along. It’s the old narrative journalistic style of “here is a particular example that represents the whole.”

The broad-strokes style mostly works. One quibble I have is the book spends a lot of time saying what “Germans” are “like” with money, what Americans are like, what Greeks are like and so on. Gross generalizations, of course, miss the point—capital markets and their mechanisms through time are amazingly agnostic to culture and race. Finance is a human universal. Further, a reader could easily say, “Well, I’m an American (German, Greek, etc.), and I’m not ‘like’ that,” which would diminish the book’s credibility.

Still, there’s no point going on in this way: Boomerang is a darn fun read. I tore through it in a single plane ride. Mr. Lewis is a great writer for the mass audience—he finds interesting characters and develops them in funny and eccentric ways; he focuses on the entertainment of the story and makes finance a quirky and wondrous appendage; he approaches each situation with a great hook and perspective. So instead of critiquing this book to death, know it’s foremost entertainment.

A couple extra comments about the book’s sections:

  • On the impending municipal bond meltdown in the US: Mr. Lewis mounts what seems to be a misplaced defense of Meredith Whitney and her now obviously incorrect call for a municipal bond meltdown in 2011. But what makes this section of the book fun is an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the overall description of fiscal dysfunction in California.
  • The breakdown of the vastness of Greece’s black market, and therefore the lack of tax base, is both hilarious and disquieting.
  • I’ve tried, and I just can’t make my comments on his German section and a particular obsession he believes Germans have work in any fashion that would get past the fine editors of MarketMinder. (You’re just gonna have to read it if you want to know more. I’m, um, washing my hands of it. So to speak.)
  • Iceland’s amazing transformation from nation of fisherman into legion of bankers.

So count this among the more entertaining in the current canon, now in populist vogue, of demonizing banks. But it would be a nice challenge, I think, and refreshing for Mr. Lewis, to swerve directions and find something positive to say for once about capitalism.

Speaking of swerves, the second book tackled on my trip was Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. Having read Peter Gay’s Modernism some years ago (the best stand-alone biography of the movement), I picked up The Swerve (noting it as a National Book Award Finalist) hoping for a stimulating treatise on Modernism contrasted and accentuated by ancient Greek and Roman literature. The description on reads like this:

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

Exciting! For, if one looks deep enough, the canon of thought stemming from the Greek and Roman cultures (though they do vary widely) is often profoundly Modern, particularly pre-Christian writings. We might quibble with Greenblatt’s choice of topic—it’s clear, in my view anyway, Heraclitus is not only an even earlier “Modern,” but his work set the stage for the first bits of Depth Psychology as a burgeoning field in the early twentieth century (i.e., Freud, Jung, et al).

Nevertheless, Greenblatt describes this notion with aplomb early in the book (he is a vastly talented writer for popular nonfiction) but unfortunately derails from there. Much of TheSwerve turns out to be an eclectic exploration of a lot of different stuff, haphazardly assembled. It’s about ancient life, medieval life and the Renaissance, methods of printing and preserving texts over the years, and so on. Modernism is a sort of afterthought in the midst of all this.

That’s truly a shame. It’s impossible, in my view, to understand now and the last century without giving some deep thought to Modernism as a movement. It would’ve been such a great contribution to literature had Greenblatt focused on Lucretius and his Modernist views as opposed to the story of blunder that rediscovered his essay.

As the world industrialized, it moved from locality to global-ness and interconnected-ness, which changed the human psyche—its perception of itself and interaction with the world at large. We began to feel small, secular, self-conscious, superstitious, myopic. The world got far too big to know and understand everything, and so Modernism was the artistic expression born of that anxiety. It’s on the precipice of Modernism that much of today’s culture stands, everything from epidemic depression and resulting reliance on pharmacology to the notion of psychology as a science itself!

Modernism is, ultimately, a quest for meaning in the midst of a world rapidly destroying meaning. The age of science, skepticism and empiricism (still upon us today) simultaneously and vastly expanded the world, while also tearing down much of what we believed about it. Modernism is the manifestation of a world that’s become an amalgam of angst and anxiety-creating contradictions: searching for meaning outside our hyper-conscious selves in an existence we’re increasingly forced to self-create and attempt to hold dominion over; dissolutions of religious belief stemming from disambiguations of science and the natural world; impenetrable meaninglessness from the exponential building of empirical data; smallness of Self created by a juggernaut world of our own making.

In today’s financial world of expanding, accelerating, hyperbole-laced information, we continue to grapple with these issues central to Modernism. The problem used to be how to get information; now the problem is dealing with its overabundance. Perhaps the greatest apprehension of these problems didn’t come from economists or financial analysts, but from Joyce, Pollack and their peers.

The Swerve, no doubt, is an entertaining diversion, but you’ll find no such depth about Modernism in it.

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