Most people know Michael Lewis for his 2006 book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” that was made into a movie “Blind Side” with Sandra Bullock about Michael Oher, an offensive lineman, a left tackle (who protects the blind side of the quarterback) who plays for the Tennessee Titans of the NFL. Great movie, and a pretty good script too. (Which wasn’t written by Michael Lewis, but anyway).
What fewer people know is that the first big literary hit that propelled him into his writing career was “Liar’s Poker,” the 1989 non-fiction, semi-autobiographical book about a younger Michael Lewis, age 26, as a a bond salesman for Salomon Brothers, the infamous Wall Street broker during the crazy financial period of the 80’s. (I have since finished this book, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It helps to lay the ground for understanding where Michael Lewis came from.)
However, in my particular case, the first article I read of Michael Lewis was linked by a Longreads article (weekly newsletter of the best long-form stories on the web: www.longreads.com) in his Vanity Fair article entitled: “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds” (source: http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/10/greeks-bearing-bonds-201010)
“Just follow the monks after they rise,” he said. Then he looked me up and down more closely. He wore an impossibly long and wild black beard, long black robes, a monk’s cap, and prayer beads. I wore white running shoes, light khakis, a mauve Brooks Brothers shirt, and carried a plastic laundry bag that said eagles palace hotel in giant letters on the side. “Why have you come?” he asked.
That was a good question. Not for church; I was there for money. The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge.
What’s amazing about Lewis as a writer is not only his breadth of subjects – just look at the three field of subjects he’s written about which I listed above – but his ability to tell a story about nearly anything, and make it interesting. The writing excerpt is about the European debt crisis a few years back, and the way Lewis unravels the story involving complex financial instruments and foreign policy, making it understandable and interesting is something he’s particularly suited for and has now created his own personal brand that helps to translate these subjects for the rest of us laypeople.
Someday I want to have the ability to write about very technical subjects and employ the storytelling hooks that help a reader learn and enjoy what they’re reading. That’s my biggest takeaway from Lewis is that he understands that he’s uniquely gifted to write about business and finance, about even the most technical facets of tradeable securities and their impact on the local and global economy, but he also understands that not everyone is created that way. In order to capture the reader, to pull them in just as he was attracted to the issue at first, he must find a way to strip away what will deter them, and add in more of what will keep them.
He did precisely that in his 2011 book about the global financial crisis of 2008. The story really begins in 2005 when new housing loans become easier to market and sell with low interest rates (usually teaser rates that eventually expand to form an incredibly unaffordable monthly payment), and wall street investment banks package these now risky housing loans into investments which are erroneously rated as solid investment by the rating agencies. His essential question was that someone must have known that this was all going to go south, and indeed there were probably about 20 different parties, or individuals that bet against these investments, (the big short), and made out with hundreds of millions of dollars when it all came crashing down.
Maybe this sounds boring to you, but if you read the book, Lewis weaves the journalistic retelling of the crisis through a cast of characters, all real life investors or analysts, and you follow these narratives as the events unfold from 2005, to the first warning signals in 2007 and the eventual crash in 2008. It’s like following a movie, and in this case of the disaster genre, like Titanic, because you know the outcome of the story even before you begin, but you want to see how these characters weather the storm. What’s interesting as well, is that by the time the book actually arrives at 2008, it’s all set up and you know what the logical consequences of this event was – indeed we all watched it on TV for a year. But this time around, you have a better foundation for answering the “why” of the crash, and you know the “who” and the “how” because it’s delivered to you like a novel.
I was hooked, and I ate this book up. It left me hungry for another.
I have since ordered three more books by Lewis. Here we go.