This Summer, Tuck into Some Good Books
Summer is icumen in--and with it the desire for escape from serious things. But that needn't mean flight from worthwhile books. Here to help you pick from the stack of booksellers' wares is Business Week's annual summer paperback roundup.
Where better to get lost than in a book of travel and adventure? In Cairo: The City Victorious (Vintage, $14), Max Rodenbeck provides what reviewer Stanley Reed called "a splendid meditation on that city's evolution from a center of ancient civilization to a vibrant, semimodern metropolis of more than 12 million." Cairo, says Rodenbeck, a correspondent for The Economist, may date back 4,000 years to the town of On, but its golden age started in the 10th century. Over the next 300 years, it became the jewel of an empire that at times embraced much of Arabia, the Levant, Iraq, and Iran. Around the 15th century, a long period of decline began; by the time Napoleon arrived in the late 1790s, Cairo had deteriorated badly. Europeans called the shots until the 1950s, when Egyptians' resentment erupted in riots in Cairo and a coup by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose socialist promises never quite worked out. Today, Cairo remains a dynamic, thriving metropolis marked by an "air of imperturbable permanence."
If U.S. history is more your cup of tea, consider Jean Strouse's Morgan: American Financier (HarperPerennial, $18). This 796-page biography of John Pierpont Morgan, the Gilded Age "Napoleon of Wall Street" and master of dozens of major businesses, is a lively if sometimes overwhelming work. J.P. was no self-made man: His father, Junius, created a fortune channeling British investment into capital-hungry America. This was compounded in the post-Civil War years, when the Morgan interests organized funds for the building of America's railroads and worked to discipline an industry plagued by suicidal rate wars. But the zenith of Morgan's power came around the turn of the century, when, on several occasions, he singlehandedly imposed order on an unruly U.S. economy, behaving as if he were the country's central banker. Strouse also scrutinizes Morgan's private interests: yachting, eccentric philanthropy, philandering, and amassing an enormous art collection. Although his final years were marked by tribulation and failure, Morgan made an indelible stamp on the country.
The markets are also a focus of Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation, by Edward Chancellor (Plume, $13.95). Chancellor's book is hardly the first or last word on speculation; economist Charles Kindelberger's 1978 Manias, Panics, and Crashes is a classic in the field. Nor does Chancellor attempt to be comprehensive, touching instead on better-known investment bubbles like the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s and the 1998 near-failure of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund. But reviewer Gary Silverman found that "Chancellor excels at describing the culture of speculative excess." Internet investors, he said, should pay close attention to the author's account of the British railway mania of the 1840s, a boom that turned to bust when rates suddenly headed higher.
Much more dire is the human tragedy described in The First World War by historian John Keegan (Vintage, $16). During that conflict, thousands of young men foresaw their own doom as they were posted to units that regularly suffered 100% casualty rates. The war had its peculiarities: Heavy slaughter was limited largely to Europe, and much of that to a long, narrow strip of parallel trenches stretching across the Continent, from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Farmers were able to plow right up to the shell holes. And one of the war's most lethal accessories turned out to be a low-tech concept borrowed from American ranchers: barbed wire, which bunched up attacking troops and turned them into easy targets. "Keegan's skill is to present comprehensive history that's peppered with telling vignettes and profiles," found reviewer Tim Belknap, who also warned that the fascinating book left him "feeling sickened and voyeuristic, as if I had been caught gaping at a bad highway wreck."
For students of technological history, there's Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael A. Hiltzik (HarperBusiness, $15). Not merely a tale of silicon and software, the volume paints a series of portraits of the remarkable people who made Xerox PARC the lodestone for computer science in the 1970s and '80s. Included among the 40-odd movers and shakers: Robert W. Taylor, who, among other things, launched development of the ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet. As PARC's recruiter, Taylor hired Alan C. Kay, who--back when computers were still giant, expensive machines--imagined book-size units available to every John and Jane Doe. And it was at PARC that James H. Clark designed his Geometry Engine chip, which led to his founding Silicon Graphics Inc. in 1982. Noting its "fresh insights" and absence of geekspeak, reviewer Otis Port found the book to be "a treat for anyone with even a passing interest in the origins of today's siliconized culture."
The 130-year history of a Wall Street mainstay is recounted in former trader Lisa Endlich's Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success (Touchstone, $14). "Endlich gained the best access ever to some of the most press-shy executives in the world," found reviewer Leah Nathans Spiro. Endlich offers new glimpses into the prestigious investment bank's unique culture--and how it's evaporating. "Greed changed the firm," she quotes one partner as saying, "and the view was to take as much risk as we can, and make it as fast as we can." Endlich excels in describing the dramatic events of 1994, when Goldman hit a nadir caused by huge trading losses and personnel defections. The paperback updates the original book with a brief account of the 1999 initial public offering, the resignation of former co-CEO Jon Corzine, and the company's progress under Hank Paulson.
Massachusetts Institute of Technolgy economist Paul Krugman's The Return of Depression Economics (Norton, $12.95) considers recent global developments and finds much to be worried about. Starting with an appraisal of the so-called Asian miracle, Krugman chronicles the tremors that have shaken the developing world in the 1990s, from Mexico's 1995 "tequila crisis" to the meltdown that spread, in 1997, from Thailand to Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Russia, and Brazil. These occurrences, he says, demonstrate how today's high-speed global economy can confront countries with unexpected threats. To make the global economy less dangerous, says Krugman, policymakers will have to reconsider orthodox thinking, which regards inflation as always bad and interference with markets as inherently counterproductive. "Economists are not known for making complex ideas accessible to the general reader," observed reviewer Gene Koretz, "but Krugman accomplishes this with effortless grace and style."
On a more amusing note, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Touchstone, $15) proves that author Paco Underhill's training as an anthropologist is valuable outside of academe. Underhill describes how his research company, Envirosell, assigns trackers to follow or videotape American shoppers and note everything they do. That has led to some interesting discoveries. For example, Underhill finds that people hardly notice anything--circulars, baskets, merchandise--located just inside a store's door. They need a "transition zone" that allows them a few seconds to adjust to being inside. Women shopping with female companions spend more time--thus more money--than women accompanied by men, who are "likely at any moment to go off and sit in the car." Why We Buy is useful as a how-to for retailers, but shoppers will discover a Vance Packard for our times, on the trail of our century's hidden persuaders.
Followers of popular culture will find much pleasure in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (Delta, $14.95) by Simon & Schuster Editor-in-Chief Michael Korda. Korda describes his four decades as a colleague of such legendary publishing figures as wunderkind editor Robert Gottlieb and S&S CEO Dick Snyder. There are tales of intra-office intrigue and fascinating tidbits on publishing life: "For editors," Korda writes, "having lunch is regarded as a positive, income-generating, aggressive act, and a certain suspicion is extended toward those few who can be found eating a sandwich at their desks." Most compelling, though, are tales of the weird and famous authors whom Korda published, including potboiler king Harold Robbins, with a voice suggestive of "elocution lessons from a loan shark," and Jacqueline Susann, who reinvented the "shopgirl romance" by adding "lots of dirty talk, the suggestion of some pretty rough sex, and an unsentimental view of men." Korda's anecdotes will keep you turning the pages.
Finally, what would summer be without baseball? Considering the National Football League's long reign as king of television sports, one wonders how the sport, with its 19th century rhythms, continues to thrive. One reason can be found in the welcome reissue of Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game (Houghton Mifflin, $12). All it is, on the surface, is Time Inc. editor Daniel Okrent's recounting of a long-forgotten Baltimore-at-Milwaukee game from June, 1982. But, reviewer Ray Hoffman found, "his version reveals layer upon layer of personality--like pugnacious Baltimore manager Earl Weaver and beer-league stereotype slugger Gorman Thomas--strategies, and countermoves." Like the game itself, the book moves at a leisurely pace, without intervention from an arbitrary clock. All that's necessary is a willingness to invest time and thought.Compiled by Hardy Green; Green Is Books Editor.Return to top