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My Book Reviews

Category: Investor story
Published: 2005
Read: 2010
Reviewed: Jul 2010

In the late 1990s David Denby went on a quest to make one million dollars in the stock market in order to buy out the other half of his house from his ex-wife after they got divorced. He invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into technology stocks prior to the peak of the Nasdaq. When the market turns, he nervously watches CNBC, gets obsessed with online porn, and loses a lot of money. Along the way he forms relationships with stock analyst Henry Blodget and Imclone CEO Sam Waskal. He also talks his personal life, specifically his relationship with his wife, and living in New York City.

Even though the book is honest and well-written, it is also painfully meandering and self-indulgent. The book doesn't even have much of a plot because, with the exception of his investment in a company named Corvis, he didn't really even invest in individual stocks. He simply had his money in a technology mutual fund. Because of the book's thin plot, there's nothing unique about the book at all. The author doesn't even get into the emotional side of losing money (with the exception of a brief rant about Henry Blodget).

This book is the kind of book that is clearly nothing special, but got published because it was a well-written, breezy, and semi-entertaining story and is a quick and easy read. I thought that the book's breezy tone conflicted somewhat with the plot. With the author losing tons of money you would think that he would have been more upset. But instead, the book has the tone of a dark comedy. Perhaps this is because the meltdown was preceded by such a large run-up that he ended up breaking even and didn't feel like he lost anything. Since the author is a writer who has probably observed plenty of life, I initially found it hard to fathom how he could be so naive about the world of investing. But he explained this accurately when he says that, "when it came to investing, intellectuals, were no smarter than anyone else."

The book's biggest strength is his description about the social climate of the 1990s when investing became a part of pop culture. The following two quotes describe the public's view toward the markets and the pressure they felt to be involved in the market on some level:

"Wealth no longer appeared to a great many Americans as a rare goal pursued through entrepreneurial skill or achieved through extraordinary luck. No, in the late nineties, wealth was almost an entitlement."
"In such an overstimulated climate, there was a measure of relief in just buying something. Right or wrong, at least it's an act, a move."

But the book could have been much better if Denby had included a few character studies of people that he had met who lost a lot of money. The book would have had a lot more depth if it had shown how the market losses had affected people. He also briefly covers a few interesting topics, like: cancer research, "The Theory of the Leisure Class" by Veblen, Tulipmania, and Alan Greenspan.

Another strength of the book was the author's description about the role that money and investing had in his life in the past and present - and how a person's class background influenced their philosophies about various financial matters, such as money and markets. Here are a couple of quotes:

"Out of pride, or snobbery, or merely laziness, I refused to get absorbed in investment thinking - the grim perusal of charts and averages, the daunting minutiae of interest rates and price-to-earnings ratios."
"I had been schooled in idealism by the decade of the sixties. In those days, thinking about money, among liberal-arts types in college and graduate school, was very much infra dig.... In that maelstrom, success wasn't important; success was an embarrassment. The general sixties prosperity helped make disdain for money a lot easier, and we were confused, a lot of us - too little minded to understand that discovering your soul and holding a job or not always incompatible....There was nothing in the least ignoble in the drive for family wealth, the desire to protect children and to protect oneself, too, in old age."
"I didn't study, I didn't learn; I didn't even check the results. I was unconsciously afraid, I now think, that I might have to take some responsibility for the results if they were bad -- or particularly good. I thought of the funds as tubers, growing under snow. Let them grow out of sight. The intimidating subject of investment was covered with feelings of dread and avoidance."

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