Book Review, Review: Michael Lewis on John Lanchester’s “Capital”

I learned from Michael Lewis’ article in this month’s New York Review of Books that the English have a particularly literary strength compared to us Yanks.

After quoting a passage from John Lanchester’s Capital featuring the inner quotidian dialogue of a Londoner named Ahmed, Lewis observes:

You can find this sort of thing on every other page—a fresh and interesting description of a sensation you might have experienced a hundred times without ever having bothered to attach words to it. The talent for these sorts of small-bore social observations is peculiarly English—it kept Kingsley Amis in business for years, and still makes Alan Bennett’s diaries feel like required reading. Maybe it’s the bad weather. (All those hours trapped indoors, watching one another.) Or maybe it’s the literary side effect of a middle-class culture in which people are expected to be painfully self-conscious, clammy in their own skin, and alert to their own folly and deceptions, lest they be spotted first by others. Whatever the reason, the English really are just better at this sort of thing than anyone on the planet.

This strikes me as likely and true, so now I will be on the lookout for it ever after.

I also learned from Lewis that the English had a particular historic weakness, relative to us Yanks.

Lewis uses the article to point out the English historical evolution with respect to American Wall Street culture.  In the early 1980s, he argues, London exhibited a curiously uncommercial attitude toward business and finance.[1]

Sometime in the last 30 years, however, an über-capitalist mentality seized the City[2] and its new, brash, Masters of the Universe.  Lewis reviews John Lanchester’s new novel in part in order to describe the evolution of London’s new elite.

I write book reviews for this site

1. To organize my own thoughts about something I’ve read;

2. To save readers the risk of reading something they’re not sure they’ll enjoy, and;

3. Most often for the largest part, because the book review allows me to make a point about something that I already wanted to say.

The New York Review of Books is better at these latter two functions than any other publication I know of, and of course Michael Lewis is better at writing about finance than anyone else.[3]  So you can imagine my pleasure on opening up this month’s NYRB to see Lewis’ review of an author I’d never heard of, who recently published a novel Capital about a diverse collection of characters in the City, in London.

Lewis clearly admires this hitherto unknown-to-me John Lanchester, even anointing him ‘one of the greatest explainers of the financial crisis and its aftermath.’  Further praise by Lewis about Lanchester:

He has a gift for taking a reader who knows nothing about a complicated topic and leaving him with the feeling that he knows all about it, or at least everything worth knowing.  He makes you feel smarter than you are.

Which, of course, is what I would have said about Michael Lewis.  Bottom-line: I’ve got to get John Lanchester’s book, Capital: A Novel.

Please also see my reviews of Michael Lewis’ books:

Liar’s Poker

The Big Short



Please see related post: All Bankers Anonymous Book Reviews in one place.


[1] Lewis related a hilarious (to me) anecdote from the early 1980s London, illustrating this curious lack of commercial attitude.  He writes: “There was a small grocery store around the corner from my flat, which carried a rare enjoyable British foodstuff, McVitties’ biscuits.  One morning the biscuits were gone.  ‘Oh, we used to sell those,’ said the very sweet woman who ran the place, ‘but we kept running out, so we don’t bother anymore.’”

[2] “The City” is the London equivalent of “Wall Street.”

[3] I’ve previously reviewed three of his finance books, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, and Boomerang.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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