The Rule of Saint Benedict
By Saint Benedict of Nursia
Published in 516 AD
Thibault's Score: 3/5
The Rule of Saint Benedict was the law that governed most medieval monasteries. Still today, many monasteries continue living under Saint Benedict’s rule.
It is a fascinating historical document that sheds a lot of light on life in the Middle Ages.
Most interestingly, it makes life seem really awful. Monasteries control every aspect of a monk’s life. Monks are totally cut off from the outside world; they have nowhere to hide. Few institutions in history seem as totalitarian as the medieval monastery.
After reading Procopius as well as some modern biographies of figures like Gregory the Great, I can’t help but get the general impression that life in late antiquity / the early middle ages was extremely totalitarian. I typically associate the late middle ages with an era of proto-libertarianism, especially when reading about the early Islamic societies and the crusades.
The rule of Saint Benedict is very short. I was able to finish it in just over an hour; for that reason alone I must recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the early middle ages.
Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, First Man of Rome
By George E. Demacopoulos
Published in October 2015
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
Finishing this book was a bit of a slog; I only did so because I love studying the early middle ages.
Gregory the Great was the Roman pope at the end of the 6th century. He grew up during the Gothic Wars of Justinian, and was one of the first popes to reign under the newly restored Byzantine domination of Italy. His tenure would be troubled: during his reign, Rome had been reduced to a ghost town. Furthermore, Byzantine Italy was under constant threat by the Lombards and other Germanic raiders.
Reading this book really helped me understand the period. From Gregory the Great’s perspective, two contrasting viewpoints were apparent. First, Christianity was already ancient by this time. Jesus had lived nearly 600 years earlier, and the Roman Empire had already been Christian for 300 years. Second, it would have been easy for Gregory to perceive his own era as the end of times due to the devastated state of Italy.
This book could have been great - but the writing was bad, and the book was very poorly organized.
Instead of giving a chronological account, Demacopoulos gives a topic by topic account. This makes following the chronology extremely difficult. Even though I have extensively studied the period, I had to constantly go onto Wikipedia to follow the events.
He doesn’t give enough context or focus enough on the period. I wish there had been more discussion about the social and political context of Italy. Instead, much of the writing feels “navel-gazeley” and is focused on Christian theology.
The reason why Demacopoulos writes this way is because he isn’t focused on telling a good story, and educating the reader about history. He is more concerned with squabbling with modern academics about different interpretations rather than laying his own case.
I do not recommend Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, First Man of Rome, even to historians interested in the period.
The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket
By Benjamin Lorr
Published in September 2020
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Knowing my interest in supply chains, my mom recommended this book to me. And what an amazing and eye opening book this is!
I haven’t read a book this interesting in a long time. It has completely changed my perspective on my own industry, on the fundamental pillars of Western life, and perhaps even on Western civilization as a whole.
Finding books about supply chains that are objective is hard. The literature seems to be either written by industry shills or left wing anti-industrial demagogues. It is hard to find a fair, balanced perspective that discusses both the good and the bad. This book is just that.
Lorr follows several iconic real life characters as they each embark on their own tiny part of the global dietary supply chain. The characters are incredibly memorable, and each of their experiences enlightens the reader, filling in part of the gap.
First, Lorr covers the adventures of a female truck driver. She is fat, a chain smoker, and carries around a pink revolver. Lorr talks about how proud she is to be one of the 5% female drivers in a masculine industry. He talks about how little money she makes, sexual harassment, and the unfair training practices. But he also describes the sense of freedom truckers experience, their pioneering spirit, and sense of self reliance. He also constantly reminds readers that without truckers, modern civilization as we know it would practically collapse as almost all goods that are used are ultimately shipped via truck to their end destinations.
Second, Lorr follows an entrepreneur desperately trying to promote a wacky new food idea. This entrepreneur has created an odd blend of coleslaw and salsa which she believes will revolutionize the condiment industry. For years, she struggles to get her product out, visiting trade show after trade show. Anyone who has ever been a struggling entrepreneur will inevitably relate. Lorr also visits the industrial kitchen where the product is made. Finally, when she succeeds, Lorr is there to witness her in all of her glory.
Finally, Lorr follows a slave fisher from Myanmar. Forced labor, although rare, still accounts for a significant percentage of the workforce in certain niche industries. This fisherman came from a poor background in Myanmar. When the war broke out, he fled to Thailand to seek out a better life. There, he was tricked into joining a fishing crew which enslaved him. On the boats, he was unable to leave, and subject to harsh physical punishments. At sea, he would lose a hand and see many comrades die slow painful deaths. Finally, he escapes, with the help of an NGO.
Lorr follows many other characters: the founder of Traders Joes, architectural consultants, human rights activists, Whole Foods trainers, just to name a few. All reveal a unique fascinating aspect of the dietary supply chain industry, slowly painting a picture of the whole.
Every single side of the supply chain is covered. The good, the glorious, and the downright miraculous; as well as the dirty, the ugly, and the evil. This is one of the rare books that truly can change the world, because it is so enlightening.
This book is a hands down must read for anyone in the supply chains business.
Procopius' Secret History
By Procopius of Caesarea
Published in 550 AD
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Procopius was one of Emperor Justinian’s advisors. He wrote several histories of the emperor during his lifetime, all of which praised him. However, once Justinian died, he wrote a final “secret” history, repudiating everything he had written earlier.
The secret history is a long laundry list of reasons why one should hate Justinian. Procopius hurls every conceivable insult at Justinian, his wife Theodora, and his other officials. He accuses Theodra of being a prostitute, implying she would participate in orgies. He calls Justinian bloodthirsty, reminding the reader of how much the emperor likes war and raises taxes to pay for such wars.
Procopius goes as far as alleging that Justinian is a literal demon. He brings up rumors that Justinian didn’t need to sleep or drink. He also points out that the emperor would metamorphosize into a faceless monster. Finally, Procopius blames Justinian for the earthquakes and plagues affecting the empire.
I love reading primary sources. But this one was very boring. Every chapter reads like the previous one - another reason to hate Justinian. The history doesn’t feel objective, reading like an anti-Obama hit piece from Breitbart.
The period is quite interesting - the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages is apparent. Procopius still views himself as a Roman, simply living in a world where Rome itself has become a foreign nation. His religion is nominally Christian, but the way he writes is more reminiscent of a Tacitus or a Polybius.
This book is a must read for the serious historians of the period, but should probably be skipped by amateurs.
By Mary Beard and Keith Hopkins
Published in March 2011
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Mary Beard is one of my favorite historians, and she never disappoints. The Colosseum is a short history of the famous monument in Rome. The book is concise and to the point, containing no fluff whatsoever.
I expected the book to start with a history of the colosseum in chronological order from its construction to the present. Instead, Beard starts with a focus on the 19th century when the monument first gained international fame. The history of the colosseum in the Middle Ages and early modern era is almost more interesting than the history of the monument during antiquity.
The colosseum was popularized by Lord Byron, and became a popular attraction among the Victorians. It immediately became filled with tourists and the scammers who inevitably accompany them.
The colosseum was built by emperor Titus around 80 AD. It would be used to host a wide variety of games until the late 6th century, at which point it fell into disrepair. While the most well known games were gladiatorial, the gladiator matches were infrequent. Historians now believe that gladiators only fought in the arena ten days per year. More common, would be other games of bloodsport, mostly involving animal hunts. Other nonviolent shows may also have been held in the arena.
During the Middle Ages, the colosseum became a giant quarry. The denizens of Rome used it as a source of raw material to build their homes. In the 16th century, the pope attempted to convert it into a cloth factory to rehabilitate former prostitutes. The scheme fails, with the colosseum instead being used to create a much smaller glue factory.
Finally, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it became a Christian pilgrim site. Christian visitors would go there to pray in the name of the martyrs who they supposed had died there. This led to a partial restoration of the colosseum, based mostly off of the imagination of the pope and Roman municipal government. As a result, much of the building you can see today actually is less than 200 years old.
This is a must read for anyone who plans to visit the monument.
Private Equity Laid Bare
By Ludovic Phalippou
Published in September 2017
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Private Equity Laid Bare advertises itself as a “non-boring, never complacent textbook.” While it is a textbook, I’m not sure that I can say that it is non-boring or never complacent.
I would say that this book is intermediate in terms of its difficulty level. The book focuses on explaining the technical details of private equity rather than giving a broader overview. There is a lot of discussion about hyper-specific LPAs, valuation calculations, etc…
Some case studies are given, but only to illustrate various points. When he discusses Blackrock’s LBO of Safeway, he does so to illustrate the moral hazards LBOs can cause. I wish he would have spent more time storytelling about specific real world case studies, and used those intricacies to illustrate his points; not the other way around.
The writing is quite good. I really love how Phalippou uses analogies from Alice in Wonderland. His writing style is similar to my own.
I do not recommend this book to people who want to learn the basics of private equity.
A History of the Middle Ages
By Crane Brinton, John Christopher, and Robert Wolff
Published in 1955
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
A History of the Middle Ages is a long boring survey history of the middle ages. I’ve had it in my iTunes library for several years, and could never bring myself to finish it, until now.
I generally don’t like survey histories, as they tend to be overly vague. Furthermore, I generally dislike old history books because they often have bad historiographies.
I didn’t really learn much. I was already very familiar with almost all of the contents of this book. While there were fascinating tidbits / nuggets here and there, the general thrust of the work wasn’t very interesting. One interesting little story I had not heard was that there is a Byzatnine Greek version of the story of Buddha.
The book is also quite disorganized. The chapters neither flow by topic, nor chronologically. As a result, the action can be quite hard to follow, even for an amateur medievalist.
The one positive thing is that the audiobook’s production is absolutely amazing. Charlton Griffin’s voice is amazing. The sound effects and music really make the book come to light. If it wasn’t for the high production quality of the audiobook, I would not have been able to finish it.
I cannot recommend this book.
When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long Term Capital Management
By Roger Lowenstein
Published in October 2000
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The title of this book misled me to believe that this book would be about the concept of long term capital management - instead, in this context, Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) was a hedge fund that existed from 1994 until its collapse in 1998.
LTCM’s strategy was to hedge bond bets - go both long and short at the same time. The firm’s founders, which included two nobel prize winning economists, had adopted a perverted version of Burton Malkiel’s Random Walk Down Wall Street strategy, which assumed that because markets were efficient, market events always occurred on a random distribution.
The fund was founded in 1994. Just four years later, they had accumulated billions of dollars worth of AUM. The firm attracted a team of self-important quants who looked down on non-mathematically inclined traders. Their abrasive ways would later come back to bite them.
After the Russian government defaulted on its sovereign debt, the late 1990s saw a global emerging markets financial collapse. This caused strange price fluctuations, and LTCM began losing money on both sides of its trades. Soon, LTCM found itself in bankruptcy proceedings.
LTCM had made many enemies during its four years of existence. As a result, nobody wanted to step in and bail them out. The Federal Reserve got involved. Rival bankers grudgingly united to cannibalize what remained of LTCM.
This is an amazing book. It is fun, interesting, and always captivating. I rarely read page turners like this, and strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in finance.
Common Sense on Mutual Funds
By John C. Bogle
Published in 1999 (Updated in 2009)
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
Common Sense on Mutual Funds builds on A Random Walk Down Wall Street by arguing that most mutual funds are, essentially, scams. The book argues instead that passively managed Index Funds have lower management costs, and are more able to ride the wave of markets.
The author, John C. Bogle, founded Vanguard, one of the first Index funds. As such, he is not an impartial author. Much of the book feels somewhat “markety,” like the author is trying to sell you his specific financial services.
While I agree with the general premise that Index Funds are superior to managed funds, and that mutual funds tend to be scams, I couldn’t finish it. I only read about half of the book. The writing style is tedious, somewhat dreary.
Furthermore, I am not the target audience. The target audience is retail investors who want to develop personal finance strategies. I was reading the book as a consultant attempting to learn more about the industry.
I don’t recommend this book.
Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It
By Scott Kupor
Published in June 2019
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Secrets of San Hill Road is a concise overview of how the Silicon Valley VC industry works. The book is written by Scott Kupor, the managing partner of legendary VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.
I learned a lot from this book, and appreciated the writing style. It is easy to understand, even for novices. A few minor things annoyed me, such as the use of the femine (rather than gender neutral) “she / her'' to describe everyone - this made things confusing at times. The positives far outweighed the negatives.
Most interesting was the discussion of who LPs are, and what sort of incentives LPs have. Learning more about the internal structure of VC funds, and the different roles everyone has is interesting. My favorite part of this section was the part where Kuport discusses LPAs.
I also enjoyed reading about the contents of contracts between VCs and investees. The key takeaway is that properly understanding the incentives is key. Kuport includes many case studies that are highly memorable.
The most major issue that I had with the book wasn’t Kupor’s fault: I simply was not the target audience.
This book is written for entrepreneurs seeking VC funding who also don’t know much about how VC consulting work. I am not seeking VC funding, and actually am a consultant for several VC funds. As someone sitting on the other side of the table who already knew much of the information presented, this wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
That being said, if the above description of a target audience corresponds for you, then this is a must read book.
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