In keeping with our custom at Adam Smith, Esq. of publishing a summertime diversion in the form of a selective list of what we’ve been reading lately, herewith the 2023 installment: two novels and two nonfiction volumes that have had a prominent places on our nightstand and coffee table recently.
- A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles (Penguin, New York: 2016). The entirely original and impressively inventive story of Count Alexander Rostov, opening in 1922 when he is 30 years old and is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in Moscow’s grand and historic Metropol Hotel for the offense of being an “unrepentant aristocrat.” The book takes him through the next three decades to the early 1950’s, within the hotel’s four walls the entire time.
- Despite the seeming claustrophobic dimension to the Count’s new life—living in an attic room and forbidden to even step outdoors for a moment—the Metropol contains multitudes of characters, as such institutions do. Indeed, such storied institutions not only occupy central physical and mental locations in major metropolitan centers the world over, but themselves contain all of life. His adventures over the years within its walls, using his wits and ingenuity to cope with everything from petty and irrational diktats to far more threatening and grave developments, is irresistible.
- Trust, Hernan Diaz, (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House, New York: 2022). The Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction in 2022. If it’s possible for money to embody a primary character in a novel, Trust accomplishes just that. The book’s essential structure is of a form I have never encountered nor heard of—four self-contained but intrinsically interrelated narratives (“Books”) opening different windows written by different narrators covering different periods of time, into the creation of a fortune in wealth, and the consequences for individuals who come into intimate contact with it. Cautionary and inspiring at once, and I’m confident you’ve never read anything like it.
- Swerve: How the world became modern, Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton, New York: 2012). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and the National Book Award. The story of how one of the greatest book sleuths of the Renaissance, Poggio Bracciolini, picked a very old manuscript off a shelf in a small and remote monastery in 1417 and discovered Lucretius’ thousand-year-old and long–forgotten poem On the Nature of Things, almost a compendium of heretical ideas: The universe functions without a God or gods; religious fear does great damage to human beings; pleasure and vice are intimately conjoined; matter is composed of what we would now call atoms. The world would never be the same. Greenblatt (Yale Ph.D), by the way, is not a Renaissance scholar or indeed an historian of any kind, but a Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. Believe it or not (and you do not have to believe that Greenblatt’s narrative about Bracciolini and Lucretius is entirely accurate), Swerve is a page-turner
- The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the ancient world to the digital age (Princeton University Press, Princeton: 2023). The third installment of a series begun at the start of the Cold War: A 1,200 page (caveat lector) compendium of 48 essays on strategy by contemporary scholars covering virtually the entire sweep of leading thinkers on the theory and practice of war and statecraft—from Thucydides and Sun Zi to Clausewitz, Napoleon, Churchill, Mao, Ben-Gurion, Andrew Marshall, Xi Jinping, and Qassem Soleimani. To call this “thought-provoking” would be like calling The Bible a book on religion. It will expand your mind in so many dimensions, and although the putative topic of the authors is primarily military, extending it to business, global great power relations today, and even competitive market dynamics is trivial.