Yesterday, on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, Salman Rushdie discussed the choices he made as guest-editor of Best American Short Stories 2008. A comparison with our recent post on the year’s New Yorker fiction reveals that several of his picks date to 2007. Still, Rushdie’s taste is excellent, and it’s always fun to hear him talk off-the-cuff.
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.
I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
I’m pleased to report that Freebird Books & Goods, the terminal stop on our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers,” has reopened its doors. With its packed wooden shelves, comfortable chairs, creaky floors, selection of fine teas, and breathtaking view of Manhattan, Freebird has been my favorite used bookstore since I first moved in around the corner three years ago. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm; guest-blogging at The Elegant Variation earlier this year, Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End, wrote of “a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well.”Premature nostalgia afflicted me and many of my neighbors when we heard that owners Rachel London and Samantha Citrin were moving on to other endeavors. But it turns out that Freebird is in good hands. New owner Peter Miller is a bibliophile and all-around nice guy. He’s dedicated to building on the traditions of the store, while introducing new amenities to draw in new customers.One such innovation is the Freebird blog, where Mr. Miller’s been posting images of (and commentary on) the wonderful oddities he’s come across in his journey through the stacks. Lively events and a renewed liquor license (coming soon, I’m told), should further burnish the store’s reputation. As Mr. Ferris put it, “It’s the kind of place that reminds you why you read.” So if you’re in New York this holiday season, hop the F train to Bergen and make your way down to the waterfront…and be reminded!
Oprah and her minions must read my blog because a little bird told me that her next book club selection is a book that also happens to be on my reading queue. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a somewhat forgotten classic by Carson McCullers. From what I’ve heard, the book resembles To Kill a Mockingbird and several other works of fiction by Southern women authors. And now it will be a bestseller. If you are one of those people who gets annoyed about the Oprah logo, hurry and get one before they run out of unbesmirched copies.
New Yorker writer, George Packer has written some impressive articles on the Iraq war over the past few years (rivaling those of another favorite, Jon Lee Anderson.) Of late, I’ve been hearing good things about Packer’s new book on the subject, The Assassins’ Gate. From a Washington Post review:How did this happen? How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos? Americans will be debating the answer for decades, and as they do, they are unlikely to find a better guide than George Packer’s masterful new The Assassins’ Gate.The Post will also be hosting a live discussion with Packer today at 3pm Eastern.