Six of the most interesting books I read in 2021
John Stepek picks six of his favourite books covering everything from blockchain to stockpicking, and the perils of doing business in Russia.
I love reading other people's "book of the year" sections, but I don't tend to do book reviews myself.
Why? Bluntly, I'm a slow reader. I find that the problem with most books is that the best bits are in the detail. If you try to skim that stuff, you get nothing but surface ideas, and everyone has those ideas, so they're not worth anything.
It's only when you take the time to read properly that you catch the little lines or insights that give you a proper appreciation of what's being said, which is often very different to the impression you'd get from reading the reviews.
(Same goes for research papers, government documents and the like – if you want to learn anything, go to the original source, there is no shortcut.)
Anyway, that's a long way round of me saying, here are some of the books I really enjoyed this year, most of which were not actually released this year.
Baffled by blockchain? This sci-fi classic might just help
The first book on my list is a 1981 science fiction classic by Vernor Vinge, called True Names. The story itself is quite fun – if you enjoyed Ready Player One, this is like reading its great-grandad (homage would be too strong a word but True Names is clearly a very big influence on that novel). It's far less gloomy and portentous than William Gibson's Neuromancer, for example. It's also very short – more a big short story than a novel.
But what I really found useful from an investment point of view is the collection of essays about cryptography, cybersecurity, the internet, and stateless money, drawn from various sources (Wired features heavily) and mostly published in the 1990s, that come with the 2016 edition of the novel. There's even a fascinating essay on a 1980s version of the metaverse – Lucasfilm's "Habitat" project.
For crypto sceptics in particular, it's well worth a read. These essays will give you a good grounding in the theoretical basis for blockchain, independent currencies and the like, without dragging you too far down the rabbit hole. It's particularly helpful that bitcoin and the rest of it didn't actually exist at the point most of these essays were written, so while the authors might have their own ideological perspectives, they aren't flogging any specific crypto tokens.
The insight of many of the authors is also fascinating. It's worth remembering that some commentators were wildly sceptical about the transformative powers of the internet well into the early 2000s. And yet these people were talking about e-commerce revolutions at a time when Amazon was nothing more than a mail order book shop and Netflix a mail order version of Blockbuster.
If you're already up on your blockchains and all of your emails come via private channels, then nothing here will be news to you. But for the rest of us, ranging from the crypto-curious (like me) to the downright sceptics, this is a very useful primer which might well open your mind.
A true-life thriller about doing business in Russia
I also finally got round to reading (or rather, listening to, via Audible) Red Notice, which is Bill Browder's account of how he set up Hermitage Capital, a hedge fund focused on investing in Russia in its brief post-1989 transition period, and how it all turned nasty.
There's no doubt that Browder is not averse to bigging himself up, and it would be interesting to have an alternative perspective (one you could trust, which is of course tricky) from others who were in the various rooms at the time.
However, there's no doubt that it's an incredible page-turner, particularly for an account that's not afraid to get a bit technical on financial matters when it feels it needs to. It reads like a thriller, but it's also fascinating for its flashes of insight into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and the sections detailing exactly how Russia was effectively asset-stripped by the same well-connected cronies who oversaw the Soviet regime, are extremely informative. I'd highly, highly recommend it.
The best investment book I read this year
The investment book I enjoyed most this year was The Smart Money Method, by Stephen Clapham. Steve is an experienced analyst and investor, and his book is all about how to pick stocks.
The big difference between Steve's book and many others in the genre is that a) it's clear he's done this stuff a lot, and that he understands from experience that there are no sure things, regardless of how good you are; and b) it is absolutely stuffed with ideas and case studies.
If you're a beginner, some of this book will go over your head, but it will give you a good idea of what you need to swot up on, and also give you a very clear understanding of just how much work goes into stock picking (and that you might be better sticking with funds or trackers for your own portfolio). And if you're experienced, it'll give you some excellent ideas on what to look for, new angles and ratios to use in your analysis, and also some entertaining and highly relatable investment tales.
Honourable mentions, plus one to pre-order now
I enjoyed Alasdair Nairn's The End of the Everything Bubble – it's a succinct rendition of all of the bearish arguments. None of them will be new to MoneyWeek readers but it's a reminder of how precarious our situation is right now. I'd also recommend Raghuram Rajan's The Third Pillar – it's a brilliant, lucid, and cool-headed summary of how we've ended up where we are (covering everything from the rise of populism to crony capitalism) and why paying more attention to community – the "third pillar", alongside the market and the state – could help us to move forward.
Finally, you all need to get hold of my colleague Merryn's new book, Share Power. I had a sneak preview and it's excellent. Merryn diagnoses exactly why everyone is fed up with capitalism, why they're wrong to be, and what we can do to make it work better for everyone involved (except maybe rampantly overpaid CEOs). It's a must-read on that basis alone.
But the other point is that it's short. Lots of investment books these days feel like they're one idea spread thinly over hundreds of pages. Merryn's book, by contrast, feels like it's packed with ideas, clear recommendations on how to implement them, and it doesn't take up half your week getting to the point. Pop over to Amazon and pre-order it to give yourself a post-Christmas treat.