My travels to the East coast last weekend swept away any doubt about the importance of the current wave of bestselling books about the Bush administration. In airport lounges, on planes, and in the New York City subways people everywhere are getting their news, not from the Times or from the weekly newsmagazines, but from a handful of books by people who enjoyed unfettered access to the current administration. I especially noticed an abundance of copies of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack as well as a handful of copies of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, (which, at the moment, come in at number one and number six respectively on Amazon’s Top 100). The content of these books is interesting, but so is the phenomenon behind them. According to many who have been following this trend, we are in uncharted territory. In the Times, David K. Kirkpatrick explains why all of this is unprecedented and suggests that the administration’s vigilance over the information that ends up in newspapers and magazines has caused a spillover into books. Here is the article.
As we adjust to new economic realities, Michael Lewis is emerging as the financial meltdown’s most important voice. His Portfolio piece “The End” told us how we got here but it also illuminated his own failure, in the 1980s, to get the point across with his book Liar’s Poker. Meant to be a cautionary tale, it became instead an inspiration.But Lewis appears unwilling to let “The End” be his final, confessional comment on the matter. This weekend, as a new year and new administration are gearing up, Lewis has delivered another far more aggressive piece, this time in the New York Times (Part 1, Part 2). In it, he calls out, more strenuously than before, the fraud, incompetence, and willful ignorance behind the financial crisis and makes it clear that this fall’s efforts to resolve it were flawed at best. He also makes several direct, clear-eyed proposals to set things back on the right course. One hopes Obama is watching. One also notices that Lewis, in these pieces, is no longer acting as a journalist or even a columnist. He has thrust himself into the center of this issue, as if looking to finish what he tried to accomplish more than 20 years ago.But Lewis has grown up too. Liar’s Poker didn’t wake up the world to Wall Street’s ills because its tone was too glib and too incredulous. We were meant to marvel at the goings on at Solomon Brothers just as the young Lewis had. That tone is gone now, and Lewis has returned to the task with a fierce seriousness. Whether or not you agree with everything that Lewis is writing in these pieces, his tone, backed up by his more than 30 years of writing about Wall Street, will give even the most optimistic observers pause.Interestingly, Lewis’ co-author for the two New York Times pieces is David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who doesn’t exactly have a pristine reputation. Einhorn heads up Greenlight Capital, which racked up average annualized returns of 25.5% from May 1996 through mid-2008, according to New York Times, though his funds, like many on Wall Street, have struggled since. He’s also a serious poker player. In 2006, he placed 18th in the World Series of Poker’s main event, winning more than $650 thousand that he donated to charity.Einhorn made headlines this year for his very vocal bearish stance on now defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. Einhorn eventually went public with discrepancies that he and his analysts had found in Lehman’s numbers. Believed to be short (i.e. placing bets that the stock would go down) Lehman and other financial names, Einhorn was excoriated in a war of words on Wall Street as regulators targeted short selling among financial stocks. Lewis and Einhorn make it clear where they stand on that issue, calling short sellers, “the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.”After much confusion as the crisis played out in 2008, it may be that we are seeing whistle-blowers like Lewis and Einhorn emerge from the mess to take control of the discussion. In time we will see if they have the ear anyone in power.
In yesterday’s post I mentioned that Elaine Pagels’ books were getting a boost from The Da Vinci Code and The Passion. Now, David Remnick gets her reaction to Mel Gibson’s film (negative) in the New Yorker. Hurry and read it before it disappears.A Remarkable BookOne of the best books I own has just come out in paperback. Thomas Pakenham is a British historian and lover of trees. A couple of years ago he collected his photographs of and stories about remarkable trees and titled it, appropriately, Remarkable Trees of the World (which is actually a companion volume to his first tree book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees). Click here to see some remarkable trees.
Following up on our recent post about the new Woody Allen books now in stores, The Independent has an excerpt from Mere Anarchy, Allen’s collection of new work. It begins:”What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” And with that came a fiendish cackle projecting shivers up my spine every Sunday when as a mesmerised youth I sat curled around our Stromberg Carlsen in the crepuscular winter light of my progenitors’ gloomy digs. The truth is, I never had the slightest idea what dark mischief gadded about even in my own pair of ventricles, until weeks back when I received a phone call from the better half at my office at Burke and Hare on Wall Street. The woman’s usual steady timbre jiggled like quantum particles, and I could tell she had gone back on smokes.
According to a new PEW Research Poll published last week, Republicans are still – in spite of the nation’s economic woes, their epically unpopular current president, and their party’s doubtful prospects for the upcoming election – happier than Democrats: 37% of Republicans versus 25% of Democrats consider themselves “very happy” – and more of them have been “very happy” since research on the subject began in 1972. While I have always suspected that a melancholic disposition is the first cause of Leftist political thought (see Why So Serious: Batman and the Intellectuals), I nonetheless find it disturbing to see this impression quantified in tidy pie graphs on the PEW website.But perhaps I should be gratified to have hard evidence of the truth of my suspicion that a basic dispositional division between people is the source of our two parties: fundamentally optimistic people, believing in the power of the individual human will and spirit to triumph at last over all obstacles, become Republicans; fundamentally pessimistic people (some might also call them realists), who recognize how powerless the individual can be against institutions and larger social forces, become Democrats.My theories, however, are for another day. The PEW report stresses that being Republican does not actually cause happiness, but it does find that setting aside all other extenuating factors that tend to increase happiness (money, being married, being healthy), a Republican is more likely than a Democrat to be very happy. And the report finds that more Republicans have more of the things that make people happy (And I quote):They have more money.They have more friends.They are more religious.They are healthier.They are more likely to be married.They like their communities more.They like their jobs more.The are more satisfied with their family life.They like the weather better.They have fewer financial worries.They are more likely to see themselves doing better in life than their parents did.They’re more like to feel that individuals – rather than outside forces – control their own success or failure.They have more of what they most value in life. (No, it’s not money.)So, while the Democrats may win the White House in a few weeks time, they are and will be still, it seems, losers in the art of getting happy.
The effects of Amazon.com on the book industry, the debate as to whether it is good or bad for the cause of reading and literature, remains heated, and I find myself rooting both for and against Amazon. One thing that I AM decided on, though, is that Amazon watching is fun. Whether they are announcing a new innovation with a front page letter from CEO Jeff Bezos, like the recent introduction of the “Search within a book” feature, or just slipping new technologies quietly into their listings, there always seems to be something new popping up there, and each new feature seems like it generates another round of debate about this behemoth of a website. The feature I discovered yesterday isn’t likely to ignite too many debates, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Part of what is fascinating about Amazon is the way they turn the inner workings of their operation into content for the website. Features like Purchase Circles, “Customers who bought this item… also bought these books…”, and “Customers who bought books by this author… also bought books by these authors…, take information that typical companies guard closely and turn it into entertainment for readers and fodder for search engines. The new feature that I noticed the other day is called “Early Adopters.” According to Amazon, “These are the newest and coolest products our customers are buying. The following lists, updated daily, are based entirely on purchase patterns.” The term “early adopter” has more or less entered the popular vocabulary in recent years. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point have popularized the notion that there is a certain type of person that is predisposed to seeking out, learning about, and owning the newest technologies. This idea is based on the broader theories of an economist named Everett Rogers whose book Diffusion of Innovations (1965) explained that individuals could be divided into five categories based on their openness to innovations. 2.5% of the population are Innovators; these are the extremely adventurous, willing to take risks on unproven technologies. These folks pay top dollar to be some of the first people in the world to own flat screen televisions and Segways. 13.5% of the population are Early Adopters; these are the folks who have the insight to seek out the best of new technologies and with their buying power and word of mouth, they can turn an obscure new product into a household item. Early adopters are considered among the most important consumers in the marketplace, and when a new product is introduced marketers spend millions directing ads at this population, knowing that they can make or break their new product, a fact clearly not lost on Amazon in the naming of their new feature. The rest of the population is less exciting. The Early Majority (34%) is slightly more adventurous than average, the Late Majority (34%), slightly less. Then there are the Laggards (16%) with their rotary phones and wooden tennis rackets. Clearly, marketers have no patience for folks with more “classic” tastes, and the marketers at Amazon are likely no exception, hence their choice of buzz words. What’s interesting about the Amazon “Early Adopters” area is that, along with more typical applications like Electronics and Cameras, they apply the term to music and books, where new products are more likely to be derivative than innovative. Regardless of their intent, the algorithm used to generate the list for books needs some work, since the list is clearly made up of books that are being purchased in bulk by students, churches, and self-published authors, not books that are being purchased by folks with literary tastes on the cutting edge.