March 18, 2010

News & Opinion: Books as Intellectual Assets in an Economic Discourse

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 1:30 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Michael Lewis's latest book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, was released this week to a lot of media attention and bestseller lists. We'll review the book more in depth on this site and elsewhere over the coming weeks, but its very release is what's giving me hope this week.

You see, for all the doom-and-gloom surrounding publishing these days, publishers themselves have done a quietly masterful job of finding books that put the Great Recession, and what caused it, in focus over the last year and a half—Michael Lewis being but the latest (albeit one of the finest) voices in the choir that publishers have been directing. And I think it is a very important task they're accomplishing. In a media environment dominated by the 24 hour news-cycle, and inundated with soundbites and tweets that flutter into the crowded cultural ether, soon to be forgotten, it is important that someone documents what went wrong in depth—where, why, when and how—and, dare I say, on paper.

And we need these books and the discussions they raise not only in academic circles, not only in and our intellectual and political culture; we need it in our popular culture. An academic dissection of what exactly went wrong, by the numbers, is important. But we need more than an economist's dissertation on the situation (though many economist's have written excellent and accessible books on the crisis). Newspapers and magazines can document the events as they're happening, and often provide a invaluable insight or angle that sheds light on what's going on. But the story is ever-changing, always evolving, and their job is to follow it, to report on its latest developments—sometimes at the expense of the larger picture (though some of the best books on the recession have been from journalists that stepped back from it all to distill that picture). Cable news and the echo chamber of the political blogosphere have their place, but we need more than talking points and counterpoints.

And this is what publishers have been so good at: finding authors and books that can inform and influence all of those discussions (and, at the same time, transcend them) and then getting them out there to do so. The are capturing the larger narratives by finding authors that can write them. They have told many stories, by many authors, from many different angles, exposing the different elements and individuals involved in the crisis. The books they've put out are, generally, well-researched and written well enough to hold serious intellectual weight, but not so obscure that the general public can't understand what's going on. The stories in these books are complicated, and often insane, but these authors are making them accessible, and publishers are making them available.

It may sound like hyperbole, but I think these books can help better not only the business and financial worlds, but the world itself. They tell a story we'll need to hear before we can correct the course our economy has been on. I sincerely hope those with their hands on the levers of power are listening to (and reading) them as they're discussing how to do so.

Here is a quick list of some of the books that I'd suggest (if you have some, please add them in the comments section):

That's just a start, and I know I'm missing a lot... probably some big ones. And that's not even getting into those books that focus more on how we recover, reset and reform our financial system (and individual companies) now that all the damage has occurred—books like Anna Bernasek's The Economics of Integrity that discuss solutions on a macro level and the Boston Consulting Group's Accelerating Out of the Great Recession that do so on a micro level.

Andrew Ross Sorkin concluded his book, Too Big to Fail, with a great story:

When the post-bailout debate was still at its highest pitch, Jamie Dimon sent Hank Paulson a note with a quote from a speech that Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in April 1910 entitled "Citizenship of the Republic." It reads:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
It was a remarkable quote for Dimon to have chosen. While Roosevelt's words described a hero, they were deeply ambiguous about whether that hero succeeded or failed. And so it is with Paulson, Geithner, Bernanke, and the dozens of public- and private-sector figures who populate this drama. It will be left to history to judge how they fared during their own time "in the arena."

In my opinion, publishers are doing a wonderful job of documenting "the arena" for us all (and hopefully those inside the arena) to consider... and for history to judge.