A Tale of Two Books

There are two books that I am “reading” and they have an intriguing confluence. One is the Tale of Two Cities in audiobook format. This is Charles Dickens’ alternately brutal and romantic tale of the French Revolutionary Times – it might be thought of as one of the first thriller novels. This audiobook reading of the unabridged novel by Frederick Davidson is masterful because not only are the characters brought to life wonderfully but also Mr. Davidson brings to full flourish the rich cadences, wonderful meter and so richly descriptives tapestry that is Dickens in full writing craftsmanship. The narrations often sings like a specially prepared score that softly underline or boldy stroke Dickens powerful scenes.

As one friend commented, this book is, like the original Mary Shelly Frankenstein, not necessarily the audiobook you want to play on a family trip – both have many horrors to insinuate themselves into childrens’ minds and possible nightmares. But to the book’s credit, Dickens shows that the terrors of Paris at the Revolution had caustic echoes in London at the Old Bailey where “justice” was meted out with nearly equal blindness and brutality. But what makes this story even more compelling is the confluence with Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money.

The Ascent of Money gives author Niall Ferguson the opportunity to layout not just the history of how money and it substitutes evolved, particularly in the West but also influenced politics and history for the last 1000 years. As money, debt, shares, limited liability and accounting tools and instruments evolved into and almost took root into common practice they also played an increasingly important in economic and political affairs for Europe, then North America and finally the broad World. Now this is not to say that Ferguson ignores trade and financial exchange which flourished worldwide for centuries. But rather he portrays the rise of state-backed paper money, more sophisticated debt, the rise of companies as stock ventures and the increased use of borrowed by nations to finance conquest and wars. And perhaps the most influential new players were both large financiers and even the common public who invested in both national bonds and stock ventures and companies emerging most rapidly in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The fascinating chapter is the third which describe the shaky start that stock ventures and national debt instruments had in Europe. Appropriately the chapter is described as Blowing Bubbles. Here is the most telling sampler from the chapter:

As an ambitious Scot, a convicted murder, a compulsive gambler and a flawed financial genius, John Law was not only responsible for the first true boom and bust in asset prices. He also may be said to have caused , indirectly, the French Revolution by comprehesively blowing the best chance that the ancien regime monarchy had to reform its finances. His story is one of the least understood tales of adventure in all financial history. It is also very much a story of our own times.

Thirty pages later in the Blowing Bubbles chapter and one can now vividly understand the financial problems that infested France and lead to the excesses and political decay that had its own “Bursting Bubble” starting with Storming of the Bastille and lasting for 10 years through the Reign of Terror with its many factions, internecine plottings and great bloodshed.

With the insights from Ferguson’s book some of the foreboding foreshadowing of events in Dickens Tale take on much greater force and probability. The Run on Trust with its Rage of Terror – that has modern day echoes within the Financial community which nearly self-decimated itself – is now more palpable in Dickens Tale of Two Cities and plausible given the Ferguson’s chapter on Blowing Bubbles. Both readings are highly recommended.