What I’ve Been Reading

Published on December 23, 2022

Thoughts on the books I read in Q4 2022

As we approach the end of the year, I decided to continue what has become a quarterly habit. During the firstsecond, and third quarters, I wrote brief “mini reviews” of the books I read. The feedback I’ve received is that these posts have been a source of ideas for readers so it seems worth continuing for the fourth quarter.

I should say that I get annoyed by people who loudly brag about the number of pages they have read. That’s not what these recaps are about. If given the choice between quantity and quality, I’ll take quality any time. It isn’t the number of books or pages that you read, but the quality of the content that matters. That being said, it is satisfying to look at the shelf of physical books read during the year. It really is true that you can read a significant number of books in a year if you make it a top priority.

These are most of the books I read in 2022, other than a few library and kindle books

Sol Price: Retail Revolutionary and Social Innovator

Author: Robert E. Price, with Forward by Jim Sinegal
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 212 pages

I find it useful to read a book related to a company or industry that I’m researching. Earlier this year, I spent many weeks researching the railroad industry. Reading Railroader, a biography of Hunter Harrison, provided tremendous insight that proved to be very useful when I sat down to write profiles of BNSF and Union Pacific

When I decided to write a profile of Costco in October, I tried to find a biography of Jim Sinegal without success. Although there are many articles about Costco’s co-founder, there appear to be no books. However, I did find a book about Sol Price, the founder of FedMart and Price Club which eventually was acquired by Costco. Jim Sinegal wrote the forward to the book which was written by Sol Price’s son.

For more on Sol Price, I’d recommend reading my article, The Story of FedMart, which was based on an excerpt from this book. I would also recommend episode 107 of the Founders podcast which is a discussion of the book.

The Price of Time

Author: Edward Chancellor
Year of publication: 2022
Length: 378 pages

The Price of Time is about as close to a complete history of interest as you are likely to find. In fact, it is really two books in one. Part One deals with the history of interest rates from Babylon of the ancient world to modern times. Part Two is an exploration of recent bubbles fueled by ultra-low interest rates and the long term consequences of this remarkable period of history. The book should interest historians as well as those who seek insight into the public policy implications of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP).

Chancellor writes with a distinct point of view, and one that I broadly already agreed with prior to reading the book. But while some of his views may be controversial, almost no one would deny the fact that interest rates act as “financial gravity”. When interest rates are held at extremely low levels or even at negative levels, the clear implication is that investors searching for yield will bid up the price of other assets. This is precisely what took place. I would recommend The Price of Time along with Christopher Leonard’s The Lords of Easy Money which I reviewed in January.

Tolstoy’s Shorter Fiction: Volume 1

Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Years of publication: 1852 to 1884
Length: 848 pages

Tolstoy is best known for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, both of which I read during the first quarter, but he did not just wake up one day to find himself capable of creating such epic works of literature. Like most writers, Tolstoy practiced his craft relentlessly for decades before he was capable of writing masterpieces. 

For those who have read War and Peace, it should be obvious that Tolstoy knew war at a very personal level. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for him to describe the battle scenes of the Napoleonic Wars as vividly as he did. Several of Tolstoy’s earliest short stories, most notably the Sevastopol Sketches are based on his experience as a young officer in the Crimean War during the mid 1850s.

Some stories are not so short such as Family Happiness, which is more like a novella, but it provides insight into Tolstoy’s later treatment of relationships in War and Peace. My favorite story was Lucerne, a first person account of a prince who traveled to Lucerne, Switzerland and encountered a street musician struggling to make a living.

There is a second volume of Tolstoy’s short fiction from later in his life which I plan to read next year. Since the stories can be read in one sitting and are stand-alone tales, this book is a low pressure way to get to know Tolstoy’s style.

The Idiot

Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Year of publication: 1868
Length: 633 pages

After reading Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov during the second quarter, I took a break from Dostoevsky during the third quarter. While his novels are masterpieces of literature, they are also intense and demanding to read and I opted for some lighter fare over the summer. But after being captivated by Dostoevsky’s style and religious themes, it was only a matter of time before I returned.

The Idiot was written two years after Crime and Punishment and more than a decade before The Brothers Karamazov. The plot centers on the life of a young man, Prince Myshkin, who returns to Russia after spending several years in Switzerland where he was treated for epilepsy. Initially penniless to the point where he must borrow small sums from the husband of a distant relative, the prince comes into a modest inheritance and is accepted into the world of St. Petersburg’s aristocratic society. 

Dostoevsky is a master of weaving religious themes into his storyline. Prince Myshkin, mistaken for an “idiot” by those with cynical and self-serving outlooks, turns out to be the most upstanding and almost saintly character of the novel, although his naïveté badly hindered his ability to navigate the romantic relationships he found himself in. Like Crime and Punishment, this novel includes a murder, albeit one that occurs at the end of the book rather than at the beginning and is much less gruesome. It’s difficult to say much more without including spoilers. 

The Johnstown Flood

Author: David McCullough
Year of publication: 1968
Length: 268 pages

This is one of the most haunting books you’re likely to ever read. Unless you are a resident of western Pennsylvania, you are probably unaware of a disaster on the scale of September 11, 2001 that took place over 130 years ago.

On May 31, 1889, after a period of intensely heavy rain, an earthen dam high above the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania was in major trouble. Built a half century earlier, the dam had not been properly maintained and there was no way to relieve the pressure. 

The dam was overtopped by relentlessly rising waters and soon broke. This sent a thundering wall of water and debris down through mountainous terrain, flattening everything in its way. When the wall of water reached Johnstown, the devastation was unimaginable. The total casualties related to the dam failure exceeded 2,200.

The Johnstown Flood is David McCullough’s first book and he was able to interview several of the elderly survivors of the flood as part of his research. I purchased this book after Mr. McCullough’s death earlier this year and I’m very glad I did. There is a Johnstown Flood National Memorial that I plan to visit in the near future along with the Flight 93 National Memorial in nearby Shanksville.

Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life

Author: Moshe Dayan
Year of publication: 1976
Length: 640 pages

I received this autobiography as a gift. My understanding of the book would have been more limited if I had not visited Israel in 2012 and seen some of the terrain Dayan describes with my own eyes. By driving through the Golan Heights and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, walking extensively through the Old City of Jerusalem, and trekking up the path to the ancient fortress of Masada, I had an appreciation for the size and scale of the country that Dayan helped to found in 1948.

The most interesting part of the book involves Dayan’s early experiences growing up in a kibbutz in Palestine under British rule. His role in the 1948 war came at the cost of losing an eye, and his famous eyepatch became a trademark. Serving in various capacities in Israel’s young government, Dayan exerted the most influence as Defense Minister during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. 

Dayan’s outlook was shaped by his military background and his account of the fighting gets further into the details than most readers might prefer. What else can one expect from a man who, as a private citizen, found a way to attach himself to an American combat unit in Vietnam so he could understand jungle warfare, a terrain he would never even encounter at home? Dayan was a man very much obsessed with military tactics, and that comes through clearly. I would recommend the book for those interested in Israel’s history as told by one of the country’s key early leaders.

What I’ve Been Reading
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