An unauthorised biography of an unauthorised biography

I just finished reading a book which was like a Telugu movie – the beginning promised much, as did the reviews. About a third into the book, I was sending excerpts from its chapters to friends. Two thirds in, I was rather engrossed. And then it all fell apart, going into polemic territory in the last third.

I’m talking about Felix Martin’s Money: The unauthorised biography. When I found the book on the shelves of Blossom Book House two weekends back, I immediately reached for my phone and checked for reviews. Largely positive reviews by The Guardian and The Economist meant that I was compelled to buy it. And the first two thirds of the book was pretty excellent.

There is one very strong idea in the book – that we should look at money not as a commodity but as a system of maintaining credit. Martin gives the example of the Fei in a Pacific Island called Yap to illustrate this, and makes a rather compelling case for not treating money as a commodity.

And he does this by giving examples from ancient and medieval history – the book is peppered with nice examples from Mesopotamia and Greece and the Warring States of China. In between he returns to modern times and talks about how Argentina in the 2000s and Ireland in the 1960s reacted to closure of banks – all of it lending further credence to his theory of money being a means of credit rather than a commodity.

He talks about the pyramidal structure of credit in medieval Italy and the fairs of Lyons. Considerable footage is given to the formation of the Bank of England and John Locke’s recommendations on debasement of the currency (these parts were easier for me to appreciate, having read Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle) and John Law’s exploits in France.

And then, with the book nicely set up two thirds in, he turns it into a polemic against investment banks and what prompted the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Again, some of the stuff is impressive, like Walter Bagehot’s recommendations following a credit crisis in the 1860s, and Keynes’s recommendations after the First World War. But the last sixty pages or so are close to unreadable, especially for someone who’s fairly closely followed the 2008 crisis.

This is not the first time that a book on history falls away when it gets to modern history. Another example of this is Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which again begins extremely strongly in its description of prehistory and ancient history, but somehow falls away when it comes to the modern world (ending with a rather unreadable chapter on immortality and the Methuselah project). There are more examples that I can’t currently recall of books that do a great job of ancient history but fall apart when they come to modern times.

Money would have been a significantly better book had it stopped at around the 220th page or so, following the recommendations of Walter Bagehot – but maybe with some final recommendations. Till then it’s a fantastic book, but then there seems to be a compulsion to provide recommendations, where it falls away (this is again a common bugbear, where books fall apart when they try to provide recommendations). I’d recommend you read it, but not beyond page 220 (totally ~280 pages).

Oh, and for a change I read the physical copy of the book (since I found a copy at Blossom Book House), so that copy is available to be lent out.