There is a complex tapestry of finely woven threads that make up this story; each one reaching back into antiquity, becoming drab of color and less distinct. The tapestry details the modern world, and without these threads, it’s impossible to understand the context in which we live. This book is an attempt to explain this tapestry, and details its creation via the economic systems of Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States. It follows their development in the 19th century, through WWI and it’s tumultuous aftermath and through the implosion of the Great Depression and rebirth following WWII.
Which makes this an integral book for the modern reader. It also, however, is a sonorous recitation of the history of banking and the economic systems that grew out of war and the near collapse of our society. It was a slog, in other words. While reading it, I was assaulted by the inescapable belief that this was all vitally important, but the one unassailable truth I could not escape was that it was also mostly lacking in entertainment value. And maybe that’s an unfair criticism, but I don’t believe history has to be boring.
This isn’t meant as a slight on Ahamed’s writing. He does a superb job detailing complex issues, and juggling numerous economic systems and the players who made them work. If I had a firmer grasp of economics, or was remotely interested in the subject beyond my feeling that the past needs to be appreciated before the present can be understood, this book might even have dazzled. Reviews I’ve seen elsewhere have been fairly glowing in praise (and, after all, this did win the Pulitzer Price). But…..a couple weeks removed from the book (as I write this), all I’m left with is that WWI got the world into the economic turmoil of the 1920s and ’30s, and the gold standard made it almost impossible for countries to claw their way out. It wasn’t until the western nations abandoned their archaic systems that the Depression began to slink away to become the haunted dreams of capitalists.
This is one of those things that I leave to greater men and women than myself. I can’t hope to understand how magnets work, so I instead take physicists at their word that it has something to do with electron spin and fields. Similarly, I’ll take Ahamed at his word that the gold standard is partly to blame for the Great Depression. It sounds plausible. I guess….?
But I need a more elementary explanation of macroeconomics and the interplay of the financial systems at the turn of the last century. Reading something I’m this poorly educated in always leaves me with a bit of anxiety. The constant feeling that I need to take notes just to keep everything straight is a significant hindrance to pleasure.
So if you want a good starter book, I don’t think this is it. If you’re already pretty firmly grounded in this world? Well, I don’t think it won the Pulitzer Prize for nothing.