Pre-Review: Too Big To Fail

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail is likely to be one of the most talked about books covering the bailouts — at least the period from the Bear Stearns collapse forward.

It is the next book in my queue after Reinhart and Rogoff’s This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.

I want to like this book, but  *Sigh* . . . I approach reading Too Big To Fail with a great deal of trepidation.

Why?

First, I know and like Sorkin. Nice guy, good reporter, runs one of the most innovative sections at the NYT. Arguably, he (more than anyone) dragged the Times kicking and screaming into the digital age. His work at the Times has been solid. And I very much enjoyed the excerpts I read in Vanity Fair. (Disclosure: I know Andrew personally, we’ve done numerous panels together, I like him — so I am not unbiased).

As to the reportage, Sorkin and his team of researchers did a masterful job hunting down and interviewing — over 500 hours — all the key players.

My problem is “the non-fiction novel” style adapted for the book. This genre originated with Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. An author using it cannot help but take literary license to tell a narrative based on facts — but in a novelized, somewhat hypothesized manner.

Bob Woodward seems to have married this approach — he used the non-fiction novel for about a dozen of his past 14 books.

What is the problem with non-fiction novels? It represents at best a loosely correlated approximation of reality. No one really knows what Tim Geithner was thinking about when he was jogging. We cannot know for sure what entered Jamie Dimon’s head when he walked into a room full of anxious bankers. Instead of eye witness testimony made at the time of events (itself often inaccurate), we get instead recollections and remembrances. How accurate are these? How self-interested self-aggrandizing are they? Are these parties remotely objective? Are their thoughts, recollections and beliefs after the fact accurate? How likely is it we are getting a highly self promotional version from them?

The counter argument: This was a unique event, and peoples recollections of it are sharp and lastimg. Further, when there are 5 people in a room, you may get biased recollections from some of them, but there will be an objective fact set form a plurality of the witnesses. Plus, all of the people involved knew they were speaking to history, and should have taken it seriously, responding as truthfully as they could have. Last, lots of NYT reporters work was used from published articles, and those stories were reported in real time.

Further, there is lots of factual data, documentary evidence, other specific details that are not quite so subjective.

So despite the format of the non-fiction novel, I have high hopes for the book.

After I read it — probably over the holiday vacation — I’ll report back on the book itself. If the full book lives up to the excerpts, it should be a fun read.

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