During a job interview, you are sometimes asked what you would do with your life if you could do anything, if you didn’t have to work. The answer you’re supposed to give is some variant of making the world a better place. One woman told me that she would teach ballet to inner-city youth. When I was asked the question once, I really blew it. I told the truth and said I would be a professional poker player. That went over like a lead balloon. Perhaps I should have given my second answer. I would be Michael Lewis!
Michael Lewis is my literary hero. I buy every book of his, the moment it comes out. Hell, I preorder them on Amazon. In hardcover! Lewis has written 18 books that I am aware of and three of them have been made into really wonderful major motion pictures, all of which I love: Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short.
The sad truth is that while I consider myself to be an excellent writer, I’m not sure that I could ever do what Lewis is able to accomplish. His secret power is taking a subject, often as dry as credit default swaps causing the housing bubble or sabermetric analysis in baseball, and making it come to life. He picks a handful of colorful characters and weaves their individual stories into a larger narrative.
My favorite character is Michael Burry from The Big Short. Burry was a trained physician who morphed himself into a hedge fund manager and was one of the first investors to not only foresee the subprime housing crisis but to also find a way to capitalize on it. In the book, Lewis relates that Burry’s son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome which led Burry to recognize the same disorder in himself. Some of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome are difficulty in social interaction and intense preoccupation with narrow subjects. In Burry’s case, a positive manifestation was his deeply focused ability to analyze companies and markets. He had trouble understanding when the investors in his hedge fund, Scion Capital, failed to understand his subprime investment vision and revolted. Actually, I have just one quibble with Burry. Scion Capital was named after Terry Brooks’ fantasy book, The Scions of Shannara, the fourth book in the Shannara series which began with The Sword of Shannara. I read that first book and considered it to be a completely second-rate ripoff of Tolkien’s works.
I first fell in love with Lewis’ writing in the early 1990’s when I read his first book, Liar’s Poker. After getting a Master’s Degree in Economics at the London School of Economics, he was hired by Salomon Brothers as a bond salesman in London. In the book, he paints a picture of the ugly underbelly of Wall Street and the behavior of bond traders and salespeople. I remember that Lewis wrote an Afterward to the book many decades after it was first published and described speaking with MBA students. To his dismay, he discovered that they viewed Liar’s Poker as an inspirational example of the riches they could obtain rather than the cautionary tale it was intended to be.
Lewis also has a new Podcast series called Against the Rules. He looks at what has happened to “fairness” in our society, as seen in how we treat referees, and “in financial markets, newsrooms, basketball games, courts of law, and much more.”
Check them all out!
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