As I’ve mentioned previously, I can’t overstate the importance of continuing your lifelong education. And reading books (or listening to audio books if you don’t like to sit and read) is a great way to contribute to that. Here are my thoughts on a couple of books I’ve enjoyed recently.
Borrow: The American Way of Debt (2012) by Louis Hyman
Full disclosure: I love both history and economics so your mileage may vary on this one. With that out of the way, I loved this book! It chronicles the history of the use of credit in the United States from prior to the Great Depression all the way up until 2012 when it was published. Credit is as old as agriculture (how do procure the necessary equipment, supplies, labor, etc until harvest time when you finally get paid?) and it has played a huge role in the growth of the most powerful economy in the history of mankind to date. Basically, credit to the American economy is PED use to professional athletes. If you use none at all, you’re ordinary and probably unsuccessful. If you use too much, you run into problems – for example, a failed drug test or an early death as a result of your organs more or less crushing your heart against your rib cage until it explodes. But with just the right balance (think vintage Arnold versus today’s bodybuilders), legends are born.
The analogy is mine; I don’t believe this book mentions steroids or even sports for that matter. But it does paint a balanced picture of how credit has both hurt us and benefited us as a nation. It also illustrates the patterns in the way the economy cycles, which can be very valuable knowledge to have. Unfortunately, the author closes it abruptly and in rather shallow fashion with a quick and superficial admonishment about how more government oversight would fix the biggest problems. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his assertion, it’s disappointing to see someone paint such a vivid, thorough picture and then wrap it up like a professor who just realized he’s gone over on his lecture and everyone is getting up to leave. I would have enjoyed seeing him form his argument and present evidence for it but instead he basically just stated it and promptly left the room.
Weak conclusion aside, this was a very worthwhile book to read. It really helped me to round things out and I already had a pretty solid base in both American history and economics. To someone who has neither of those, it would probably be even more helpful. I recommend this book to anyone who has ever heard someone say “back in my day, people would have never dreamed of borrowing money.” You have probably always known deep down that unless that guy stepped out of a time machine before he said that, he was full of shit. But if you read this book, you will have the facts to back it up.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) by Sebastian Junger
This is a special book that has a lot to say. It was so profound that there were several times when I put the book down and found myself deep in thought about what I had just read and the way it relates to issues in our society today. What’s more, it manages to present its message in an extremely succinct fashion – something the author of this blog could certainly take a lesson on at times! The book is just over a hundred pages and yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it.
If I had to summarize the message of this book, I would say that victory has made us weak. We in the western world have gotten so far beyond the subsistence based existence of most of humanity’s past that we now have obese people with devices containing the entire world’s knowledge in the palm of their hands who genuinely believe they are poor. But in the process of getting here, we have lost sight of something crucial. Today, we are the wealthiest collection of people that has ever existed but we are also much more disconnected from one another than almost any of our ancestors were. Each of us lives an incredibly isolated life by historical standards and the author posits that this is the cause of the epidemic of mental health issues we collectively struggle against. All of this is very well researched and put together.
This book won’t take anyone more than a few hours to read and I promise it will change you in some way. It is for anyone from extreme liberal to extreme conservative and anywhere in between. It explains so much of what we see every day and how we might be able to make this world a better place if we would just pay attention to what is really important. This author has a gift and I would definitely read another book based on nothing more than his name being on the cover.