Best of Book Bits 2019 (Part I)

Another year over, which means it’s time for the annual look-back for The Capital Spectator’s weekly Book Bits column. In keeping with tradition, we’ll highlight ten titles that found their way to these pages over the course of 2019. The criteria that delivered the results below? Your editor found the books intriguing, entertaining and/or revealing for one reason or another. As usual, the short list will be carved into two equally digestible servings, starting with five today, followed with the balance next week. Happy reading!

How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information
By Alberto Cairo
Review via The Economist
His book could not be more timely. Charts and maps pepper traditional and social media more than ever, but there have been few attempts to improve what Mr Cairo calls the “graphicacy” of their consumers. His corrective begins with a chapter on how to read a chart, and this basic notion—that, to be understood, graphs must be read, not merely glanced at—permeates the book. He outlines the essential “scaffolding” of a chart (scales, legend, source and so on), before describing the many ways that data can be built upon it. Only once readers know what a solid structure looks like can they learn to spot a façade.

● An Economist Walks into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk
By Allison Schrager
Review via Bloomberg
To learn how to manage risks in your life, don’t consult office-bound economists or actuaries. Ask the real experts: prostitutes, gamblers, magicians, paparazzi, big-wave surfers, movie producers, horse breeders, and soldiers. Their careers require them to take risks. They succeed by doing so smartly—deriving as much benefit as possible per unit of risk taken. Allison Schrager, herself an economist, though not of the office-bound variety, interviewed all of these exotic professionals for an intriguing new book, An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.

● A Brief History of Doom: Two Hundred Years of Financial Crises
By Richard Vague
Summary via publisher (University of Pennsylvania Press)
Financial crises happen time and again in post-industrial economies—and they are extraordinarily damaging. Building on insights gleaned from many years of work in the banking industry and drawing on a vast trove of data, Richard Vague argues that such crises follow a pattern that makes them both predictable and avoidable.
A Brief History of Doom examines a series of major crises over the past 200 years in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, and China—including the Great Depression and the economic meltdown of 2008. Vague demonstrates that the over-accumulation of private debt does a better job than any other variable of explaining and predicting financial crises. In a series of clear and gripping chapters, he shows that in each case the rapid growth of loans produced widespread overcapacity, which then led to the spread of bad loans and bank failures. This cycle, according to Vague, is the essence of financial crises and the script they invariably follow.

● The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution
By Gregory Zuckerman
Review via Bloomberg/Barry Ritholtz
Every now and again, a book comes along that is so compelling, filled with so many fascinating characters and new information, that it demands a review.
“The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution” is just such a book. Written by Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Zuckerman, it is a history of Simons and the secretive hedge-fund firm he founded, Renaissance Technologies LLC. Zuckerman spent 2-1/2 years researching the firm, eventually speaking to more than 40 current and former Renaissance employees. Despite the misgivings and deep opposition to this (or any) book about his career, Simons eventually agreed to sit for more than 10 hours of interviews.

● The Panic of 1819: The First Great Depression
By Andrew H. Browning
Summary via publisher (University of Missouri Press)
The Panic of 1819 tells the story of the first nationwide economic collapse to strike the United States. Much more than a banking crisis or real estate bubble, the Panic was the culmination of an economic wave that rolled through the United States, forming before the War of 1812, cresting with the land and cotton boom of 1818, and crashing just as the nation confronted the crisis over slavery in Missouri. The Panic introduced Americans to the new phenomenon of boom and bust, changed the country’s attitudes towards wealth and poverty, spurred the political movement that became Jacksonian Democracy, and helped create the sectional divide that would lead to the Civil War. Although it stands as one of the turning points of American history, few Americans today have heard of the Panic of 1819, yet we continue to ignore its lessons—and repeat its mistakes.

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