I spotted this essay by James Wood in the Guardian about endings that disappoint. I agree that there is hardly anything more disheartening than a novel that just peters out at the end. To me reading a book is like making an investment. You put in the time, and at the end you hope to walk away with some pleasure. A bad ending screws up the whole arrangement. I tried to think of some really good endings and off the top of my head I came up with a couple. In terms of paying off on an investment, one of my favorites is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The “a ha!” moment is almost too perfect but Irving has set it up so well that you can’t help but believe it. Another great ending that comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. After such a long journey, one almost expects the book to run out of steam, but Steinbeck magnificently collects everything together at the end and sends you out of the book with real emotional force. When I read the last words of that book and put it down, I said to myself, “Wow, that was worth it.”
Every so often in a reader’s life, he stumbles upon two books that complement each other like red meat and red wine. Such a happy accident befell me last month, when I happened to read Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker hard on the heels of Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God.The Frank book, an evisceration of the free-market discourse and management culture of the 90s, was a fine read on its own: funny, incisive, and angry. And yet, in its argumentation, it at first struck me as inferior to Frank’s more recent What’s the Matter With Kansas? Like Lewis Lapham, who published excerpts from both books in Harper’s, Frank has a tendency to preach to the choir. This often doesn’t bother me; I sit right in the middle of that choir. When Frank demonstrates the tension between a free market and economic democracy, I say “Amen.” When he decries the commodification of the counterculture, I shout “Hallelujah.”When Frank gets down to naming names, however, I get uneasy. One Market Under God does not hesitate to lay the sorry state of the world at the feet of specific, individual evildoers, and I, raised to try to see the best in people, prefer to blame systemic ills. And so I’m not sure if Frank’s depiction of scheming, iniquitous fat cats is a workable belief or a bit of populist wishful thinking.Or I wasn’t sure, until I picked up Liar’s Poker. Here Michael Lewis, himself a former stockbroker, takes us inside Salomon Brothers, the investment bank where he worked in the rip-roaring 80s. Lewis establishes his centrist credentials early and often, and generally eschews editorializing. It is especially appalling, then, (if weirdly engrossing) to discover that Salomon Brothers is full of…scheming, iniquitous fat cats!Liar’s Poker is like a nonfiction version of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (IMDb). The visionary salesmen and traders of Solomon Brothers screw the little guy at every turn, and we get to see every dirty detail. They rip off investors, lie to the public, devalue successful companies, inflate worthless ones, lay off employees, throw phones at underlings, grope secretaries, consume conspicuously, and generally turn themselves into caricatures of the worst kind of capitalist exploitation. The free-market they promote is, in fact, far from free.In an ideal marketplace, knowledge is symmetrical. The vulgar version: buyer and seller are in possession of the same set of facts, and prices reach equilibrium according to the law of supply and demand. This is why there are laws against rolling back odometers, and against making false claims in advertisements. But investment banks, as Lewis portrays them, rely on the market’s inefficiency at distributing information – its tendency to allow those most heavily invested in a market to control the flow of knowledge within and about that market – to buy below fair-market value, and to sell well above it.Of course, we are assured, such excesses have since been curbed by regulation. (This is part of the 90s market populism analyzed in One Market Under God, wherein Wall Street is brought to heel by Main Street.) Insider trading laws are now stringent, we are told; firewalls have arisen between the trading floors where commodities are sold and the equity departments where they are underwritten. But Wall Street is still raking it in, while Main Street drifts and eddies on stagnant wages.Perhaps the current investment bank bonanza is merely the financial industry’s reward for its own newfound virtuousness. Still, the next time you hear an I-banker lamenting the regulatory climate, or claiming that Sarbanes-Oxley is driving all the moneymen to London, ask him what kind of bonus he got last year, and whether he’s still living in New York. Then tell him you’ve got a bridge you’re looking to sell…See also: Max’s review of Liar’s Poker
I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but I wanted to echo and add to something I wrote about last year around this time. I’ve always been an avid reader. As long as I can remember, I’ve spent a portion of my day reading, but it was keeping this blog that really helped me grow as a reader. I’ve valued the discussion, the community and having a platform to share my thoughts. I think, though, the most valuable part of this experience for me has been using the blog as a reading journal. Keeping track of what I read and writing a few sentences about most of those books has changed the way I read. Before, I never kept track of what I read, but now I feel like I’m building a library of knowledge to mull over and share. Books live on in my memory a lot longer than they used to.So, if you happen to be in the market for a resolution this New Year’s, feel free to borrow this one. It’s simple: Keep track of every book you read this year. Write down the title and author, and, if you feel like it might be a worthwhile exercise for you, jot down a few thoughts about each book. It will enrich your reading experience.
Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, both incisive, witty journalists, staff writers at the New Yorker, and expat Canadians, return to Toronto this weekend for a live debate Sunday afternoon at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall.The topic: Canada: Nation or Notion? (And as a proud and sometimes confused Canadian myself, I’m eager to learn the answer)If you happen to be in the Toronto area, tickets can be purchased here. And I believe there are plans to air the debate, down the road, on CBC Radio.
Using Amazon.com bestseller rankings as his data set, a physicist at UCLA, Didier Sornette, and his coauthors have just completed a study to investigate which phenomena lie behind the creation of best-selling books. While Sornette acknowledges that a big sales spike occurs after a book receives a prominent review or a mention on television, “the slower peaks tend to generate more sales over time.” He finds that word of mouth is — scientifically — the best way to sell books. Or, to put it another way, it appears as though the laws of physics decree that creative marketing will win out over the more aggressive variety. Here’s the abstract for the original study with all its scientific mumbo-jumbo.A Baseball Book MiracleAs Janet Maslin notes in her review of Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan couldn’t have picked a better year than this one to write a fan’s-eye-view book about their beloved Boston Red Sox. Maslin likes the book and I’m not surprised; passion for the subject matter often leads to inspired and entertaining writing.
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.
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be appearing as a judge in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. (Click through to see the other, far more distinguished, judges, as well) It’s exciting to be a part of what just might be my favorite ongoing series on the web. Stayed tuned for my second-round judgment once the Tournament kicks off in a few weeks.And by all means, get your bracket (pdf) now and start handicapping.