This is the time of the year that we see so many collective lists of the “best of 2010.” In the last few days, we have seen such lists for films, sports accomplishments, songs, architecture, recipes, restaurants, and of course, books.
I want to tell you that I am unimpressed with most of the lists that I have seen that focus on books. As with films, these book lists contain great confusion among quality and quantity. That premise is particularly true when the lists come from booksellers themselves, such as a recent e-mail I received from Barnes and Noble with their “Books of the Year.”
Just like a film, a book is not necessarily good because it sells. Popular, best-selling books are of no greater quality than are popular, high dollar-grossing films. Because people buy a book does not make it good. Nor do I consider it a good barometer for quality.
Consider the terrible film from the late ’70’s, the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” That film grossed millions of dollars and played regularly in theatres on Friday and Saturday nights through the mid ’90’s. It had no redeeming merit and critics panned its quality. Yet, it had a cult-like following, and it played to packed audiences, mostly either inebriated or bored, for many years.
In the recent Barnes and Noble list, I saw one business book for the 2010 year. It was The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I saw no other business books. I believe that was a fine book, but not as good as his previous offering, Moneyball. Why was it on the list? Because it sold. The best books in that list are the best-sellers. But, best-selling does not indicate high quality. I can give you titles of at least a dozen other books this year that were of higher quality than that one, but that simply did not sell as well.
Please remember that we only summarize the content of best-selling books at our monthly First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas. The number one criterion is that the book must be on a best-selling list somewhere that we find credible. These lists include Business Week, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Amazon.com, among others. I will admit to you that after 13 years of doing this, I have delivered synopses of some books that sold well, but that were simply not very good. Some were not well-written, some were ill-researched, and some were best-sellers just because of the reputation of the author.
Regardless, we will continue to use best-sellers as our basis for book selection at the First Friday Book Synopsis. But, I am telling you that popular does not equate to good. And, there are likely some very good books that do not have the boost of marketing dollars from huge publishers that likely go overlooked. Strange as it sounds, it may not be optimal, but these lists remain the best vehicle available for us to use for our selections. Remember – popular may not be good. And, good may not always be popular.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it!
Books of the Year
Economics and business
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. By Michael Lewis. Norton; 266 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £25 The author of a 1989 bestseller, “Liar’s Poker”, exposes the greed and double-dealing that helped ignite the financial meltdown. One of the best books on the recent crisis.
More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of the New Elite. By Sebastian Mallaby. Penguin Press; 482 pages; $29.95. Bloomsbury; £25 A superbly researched history of hedge-fund heroes stretching back to the 1950s and a fascinating tale of the contrarian and cerebral misfits who created successful, flexible businesses in an otherwise conventional financial world, by a Washington-based British journalist who is married to our economics editor.
High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg. By Niall Ferguson. Penguin Press; 548 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30 The story of the scrappy refugee from Hitler’s Germany who changed the City and did more than most to boost London’s standing, although his own firm lost its way and fell to a foreign rival after his death. The author is a British economic historian who teaches at Harvard and the London School of Economics.
Science and technology
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. By Steven Johnson. Riverhead; 326 pages; $26.95. Allen Lane; £20 In a crowded field, Steven Johnson, an American popular-science writer, finds new and original things to say about the nature of innovation, and the different forms it can take.
What Technology Wants. By Kevin Kelly. Viking; 416 pages; $27.95 A book that provides a new understanding of innovation, proving it to be more gradual, serendipitous, inevitable and evolutionary than we have hitherto given it credit for.
Of these five, I have presented The Big Short to a private client, and Where Good Ideas Come From just this morning at the First Friday Book Synopsis for December.
(You will soon be able to purchase my synopsis of both of these books, with handout + audio, at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.
My colleague Karl Krayer teaches eight principles in his sessions on writing skills. One principle is this: economize words. It is a valuable principle.
I recently took some Q&A. The last question was asked by a guy in the front row. He said “What’s your take on the true value of a university education?” I shared my general opinion (summary: great socially, but not realistic enough academically) and ended with a description of a course I’d like to see taught in college. In fact, I’d like to teach it.
It would be a writing course. Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version.
I don’t care about the topic. I care about the editing. I care about the constant refinement and compression. I care about taking three pages and turning it one page. Then from one page into three paragraphs. Then from three paragraphs into one paragraph. And finally, from one paragraph into one perfectly distilled sentence.
Along the way you’d trade detail for brevity. Hopefully adding clarity at each point. This is important because I believe editing is an essential skill that is often overlooked and under appreciated. The future belongs to the best editors.
I do think this is right; good; useful.
On the other hand, the details matter too. “You’d trade detail for brevity,” said Fried. Yes, you would. So, study the writing of both Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell. I think they both have learned how to provide great detail, with few words.
So – learn what Fried suggests, then work on getting detail back in, in few words. Economize words, even in your details.
And remember this from Frank Luntz. Provide the “perfectly distilled sentence.” Then the one-page executive summary. Then, for those who want more, in a click away, provide the three pages of details:
(A Luntz Lesson) The number one priority: information. More is better than less. Details are better than generalities. Comprehensive is better than simplistic. Long term is better than immediate… Summarize the material for those who want to read less, but provide the fine print for those who want to know more.
(from What Americans REALLY WANT…REALLY: The Truth about our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears)
Quoted without comment, about Ron Washington, while he was the infield coach of the Oakland A’s:
Ron Washington was the infield coach because he had a gift for making players want to be better than they were — though he would never allow himself such a pretentious thought.
Michael Lewis, Moneyball, (p. 165).
My post, A Quick Graphic Overview of The Big Short, has been one of the more popular posts on this blog. Here is a new article by Michael Lewis, with a clear statement of the problem, and his proposed solution. The article, Wall Street Proprietary Trading Under Cover (Bloomberg Opinion) is worth reading in full. Here are excerpts:
A few weeks ago we asked a simple question: Why are the same Wall Street banks that lobbied so hard to dilute the passages in the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill banning proprietary trading now jettisoning their proprietary trading groups, without so much as a whimper?
The law directs regulators to study the prop trading ban for another 15 months before deciding how to enforce it: why is Wall Street caving now?
The many answers offered by Wall Street insiders in response boil down to a simple sentence: The banks have no intention of ceasing their prop trading. They are merely disguising the activity, by giving it some other name.
Solution proposed by Michael Lewis:
Keep It Simple
There’s a simple, straightforward way for the GAO to construe the Dodd-Frank language, and it would reform Wall Street in a single stroke: to ban any sort of position-taking at the giant publicly owned banks. To say, simply: You are no longer allowed to make bets in the same stocks and bonds that you are selling to investors. (emphasis added).
If that means that Goldman Sachs is no longer allowed to make markets in corporate bonds, so be it. You can be Charles Schwab, and advise investors; or you can be Citadel, and run trading positions. But if you are Citadel you will be privately owned. And if you blow up your firm, you will blow up yourself in the bargain.
Here is one list of top books: the finalists for the “Business Book of the Year.” The Financial Times and Goldman Sachs oversee this particular award. Read about it here. This is from the Financial Times article:
Books that investigate and explain the financial crisis dominate the shortlist for the 2010 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.
The finalists are:
The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick
The Big Short by Michael Lewis
More Money than God by Sebastian Mallaby
Fault Lines by Raghuram Rajan
Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin
All but the first two tackle, directly or indirectly, some aspect of the crisis that hit the financial world in 2007-08 and whose impact is still being absorbed by global businesses and economies.
The Business Book of the Year will be announced on October 27 in New York.
Here are prior winners:
2009 – Liaquat Ahamed for The Lords of Finance
2008 – Mohamed El-Erian for When Markets Collide
2007 – William D. Cohan for The Last Tycoons
2006 – James Kynge for China Shakes the World
2005 – Thomas Friedman for The World is Flat
Read more about each of this year’s finalists here.
Note: I have presented synopsis of two of the book listed: The World is Flat and The Big Short. It looks like I have more reading to do!
Thanks to First Friday Book Synopsis participant Leslie Garner for alerting me to this.