Working backwards, these are the half-read books:
- Snowball, a biography of Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and for many years, one of the two richest men in the world. He's also a world-class bridge player and since I'm interested in both stocks and bridge, I thought this should break my half-read streak. The book starts strong; Buffet's childhood enterprises -- he was filing business taxes by the time he was 14 -- were amazing, and my interest didn't flag through his post-Columbia years working for Ben Graham. But pretty soon, we get to Buffett's own career and the narrative falls apart. Buffett was extremely secretive -- people who invested with him had to trust what he did because he would not tell them about his exact investments. He would make his clients join informal partnerships so as to not exceeed 100 clients because with 100 clients, he would have had to register with the SEC. He did his own accounts and paper work. He promised his clients a return of 10% above the market. He would take only clients who specifically asked to join him -- they had to literally "beg". His most spectacular early investments -- in GEICO or American Express -- were completely contrary to his putative method (which was to follow Ben Graham's value philosophy). So by the time I came to this section of the book, Warenn Buffett started to resemble no one more than Bernard Madoff, the runner of a 50-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. And once I started to suspect that the subject of the hagiography might be a crook, my interest fell apart. I stopped reading around the 400th page (it's a 900-page book).
- The World a Moment Later which is a fabulous (in the sense of the "magic realism" of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) story of Israel. I loved Garcia's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. But under lesser writers, his magic realism falls apart. What works in Garcia's case is that his stories are about ordinary people. The powers that be are far away and their decisions affect the protoganists behind multiple layers of cause-and-effect that makes it seem magical. But Gutfriend's book is about a fellow who makes things happen by pulling strings behind the scenes. This simply doesn't work, and again one has no empathy for the protagonist. I stopped reading this book, too, half-way.
- Lincoln, the biography of a writer, is about Abe Lincoln and his impact on American literature. For whatever reason, Fred Kaplan starts the story with Lincoln's grand-father and the trials of Lincoln's father. By the time you come to the half-way point of the book, you still haven't read an analysis of anything that Lincoln wrote. I quit.
- Unconventional Success, an "investment guide" that purports to show that Wall Street is horribly compromised and the strategies that individual investors should follow. This turned out to be rather conventional advice, of the sort that every personal finance magazine doles out.
So what was the last book that I read cover-to-cover? It was Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. This is magic realism at its best. It's set in British India, at a time when the Brits were forcing Indian farmers to grow poppies (backbreaking labor, with the economics set up that farmers ended up being neck-deep in debt). The Brits would make opium and sell it in China, thus managing to kill two civilizations with one product. The protagonists of the story: a farmer's widow fleeing her husband's debts; an untouchable village idiot; a half-black American who's passing as white; a French orphan escaping the extremely class-conscious European society of Calcutta; a rich landowner cheated out of his land by a British merchant and put on a ship to Mauritius. It's the passengers of this ship, and the Indian seamen ("laskars") who man it, that form the crux of the story. A wonderful story, in an exotic but historical setting with characters you immediately start to empathize with ... is that really so hard?