Books I read in... February 2018

Books I read in... February 2018

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I have no idea where February went.  It seemed to fly by.  I did manage to fit in some good reads though….


Lords of Finance – 1929, The Great Depression, and the Bankers Who Broke the World – Liaquat Ahamed

This was definitely my best read of the month.  Morgan Housel wrote in a blog post last month, “One of my favourite ideas is that people should read more history and fewer forecasts.”  This phrase kept popping into my mind throughout this book.

Ahamed was writing this book in October 2008 at the height of the last ‘Great Financial Crisis’ and at that point had no idea whether the outcome would be similar to that of 1929.

The book covers the period from pre WW1 to the outbreak of WW2 and concentrates on the roles of four men who dominated the world of international banking during the period leading up to the 1929 market crash: Montagu Norman at the Bank of England; Emile Moreau at the Banque de France; Hjalmar Schacht at the Reichsbank and Benjamin Strong at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

All played their part in the series of events which ultimately led to the Great Depression, starting with the crippling reparations imposed on Germany after WW1 and their dogged determination to stick to the gold standard.

It’s worth bearing in mind that in 1914 most central banks were still privately owned and their single most important objective was to preserve the value of their respective countries’ currencies, all of which were on the gold standard.

The book is a fascinating journey chronicling the decisions – both good and bad – made by these central bankers, which ultimately led to the greatest worldwide economic downturn we have ever seen.  Ahamed concludes that, more than anything else, the Great Depression was caused by “a failure of intellectual will, a lack of understanding about how the economy operated.”  John Maynard Keynes features heavily in the book – often as a lone voice in the wilderness.  Towards the end of his life he stated in a speech that economists are the “trustees, not of civilisation, but of the possibility of civilisation.”  I think he had a point.


Longitude – Dava Sobel 

This was another great read.

I had not realised that latitude and longitude were known about as far back as 3BC.  While plotting latitude on a map is a relatively straightforward matter, as the zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, longitude can only be calculated at sea by knowing what time it is aboard ship and also the time at the home port or another place of longitude at that very same moment.  It would be over four centuries before the longitude conundrum could be solved, and the person who eventually solved the problem would not be one of the world’s great astronomers such as Newton, Halley or Galileo but a humble English clockmaker, self-taught, called John Harrison.

Parliament passed The Longitude Act in 1714, which offered a handsome cash prize to anyone for a ‘Practicable and Useful’ means of determining longitude.

It took Harrison forty years before the ‘scientific elite’ at Greenwich finally accepted his invention – although it took the intervention of King George III to get them to do so.  They were convinced that the solution lay in astronomy, not mechanics, and repeatedly changed the rules whenever they saw fit to prevent Harrison being awarded the prize.

Harrisons four clocks now reside here at Greenwich Royal Observatory which, as we all know, is also the site of the prime meridian of the world – zero degrees longitude.  I’ve never been to either the museum or the Royal Observatory.  Thanks to this book, I will be planning a trip to remedy that.


Small Giants – Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big – Bo Burlingham

There comes a time in the life cycle of many small businesses who have managed to survive the start-up phase and move into consistent profitability, when they will be faced with the choice of whether they want to go all out for growth and become big businesses.

The accepted wisdom is that businesses must grow or die.  This book set out to prove that’s no longer the case and that it is possible for businesses to stay small, make a huge contribution to the lives of their employees and communities and still be financially successful, stable companies.

Burlingham studied a total of 14 businesses in 2004 and the original version of this book was published the following year.  This 10th anniversary edition includes an update on what has happened to the companies since then.

I found this book fascinating – as a small business owner, who frankly has no desire to become the owner of a huge business.  As the founder of one of the companies Burlingham studied stated, “A business without a soul is not something I’m interested in working at.”

Not all the founders were great business people – they had to learn difficult lessons along the way and some of them didn’t make it, for one reason or another.

I would recommend this book to any small business owner – there are several lessons learned about which any business owner could benefit from reading.  It’s also inspiring in terms of what some of these companies have managed to achieve, without ‘selling out’.  Great book.


The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

This was my favourite fiction read of the month.

The book follows three generations of beekeepers from the past, present, and future:

England 1852 – William, a biologist who sets out to build a new type of beehive.

US 2007 – George, a beekeeper fighting an uphill battle against modern farming.

China 2098 – Tao, who has to work as a hand pollinator as the world’s bees have long since died out.

Can you imagine a world without bees?  It would be devastating.  Yet, it could happen.  I really enjoyed this book – and I don’t think you need to be interested in bees to enjoy it, the stories of the main protagonists are engaging and go way beyond the subject of bees.

I hope I’ve inspired you to pick up one or two of this month’s choices!

Warm regards