Off the Shelf – September 2014

By Richard Lofthouse

Rich pickings this month, beginning (literally) with Guy Spier’s The Education of a Value Investor. Guy went to Oxford (Brasenose, 1984) and Harvard and Wall Street, soiled himself by working briefly at a dodgy company, and then set up his own investment fund with family money. Having survived the Crash (2008–), and indeed made much money from it by applying Warren Buffett principles, he moved to Zurich, learned to play bridge and turned off his Bloomberg monitor. Then he started visiting Indian orphanages and giving away his wealth. The book ends with him in a meditative trance having taken his coffee machine off grid and taken up cycling. Well, no, that last bit is mine; I’m just emphasising the rhetorical trajectory that all such books take. I don’t think Guy was ever as bad as he makes out at the start, and he still drives a convertible Porsche. Even some senior Oxford folks have convertible Porsches.

Nonetheless, the subtitle of this confessional narrative, My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment, demands a leap of faith if you grew up being told rich men don’t easily thread through the eyes of needles. The book is a subtle updating of a well-defined genre within investor literature — ‘get rich slowly and with integrity but get rich nonetheless’. Like the ur-text in that genre, Napoleon Hill’s 20-million-selling Think and Grow Rich (1937), Guy’s book is a post-massive-crash narrative. Value investing is about filling your boots with equities when everyone else is dying of fright, and offloading them only when the rest of the market is in a frenzied bubble. The difference between agreeing with that approach in principle, and actually doing it, is the substance of this book. Guy’s answer is to model yourself on the person you want to be like: in his case Warren Buffett — and there is an unforgettable chapter about the $250,000 Guy spent to have lunch with the man. Page 39 has a rhetorical device so well worn that it made me laugh: “What I’m about to tell you may be the single most important secret I’ve discovered…” And on that cliff hanger might you part with $26.00?

Switching tracks we have two wordsmith books, both by OUP: David Crystal’s Words in Time and Place, and Orin Hargraves’ It’s been Said Before. Crystal is a celebrated linguist who whacks out fifteen chapters exploring clusters of words around human themes, drawn from Oxford’s Historical Thesaurus of the OED. He starts with ‘From swelt to zonk: words for dying’, continues with ‘From gong to shitter: words for a privy’ and progresses to ‘From meretrix to parlor girl: words for a prostitute.’ The reader gets an entertaining slice of re-purposed historical thesaurus and some infographics that I didn’t entirely understand.

Hargraves, on the other hand, set us all straight on cliché and idiom with cool and delicious authority. As a past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, he is more than qualified. The subtitle of his work is A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés and, if you’ll excuse the idiom, it does what it says on the tin. The etymology of the French verb clicher is complex, but the original literal meaning of the English adoption denoted a printer’s convenience, ‘specifically a stereotype block bearing text that was used to produce multiple printed copies’. It was a skip and jump from printer’s block to our notion of ‘a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought’. The considerable entertainment value of this book is that instead of producing a dictionary of clichés (there are several already) Hargraves editorialises. Example: ‘Worth its weight in gold is a long-winded way of saying ‘valuable’ and is applied indiscriminately to all things, whether their weight, if they are even capable of having weight, is of interest or not.’ Shazam! He continues, ‘Using it means a missed opportunity to characterise worth in any number of more original or striking ways.’ Filled with usage anxiety, I can only say that this book has value.

Philip Loder, who has an Oxford DPhil in insect physiology, delights with a slender volume of short stories that are almost flash fiction for their brevity and collected under the title Selling Antiquity. The second story, ‘Flying Circuits’, is set in Oxford and celebrates coming of age against the backdrop of the University’s effort to encourage swifts to nest. But the collection ranges very widely and is well judged. In fact it is a super example of short-form fiction at its best, and betrays an Arts Council-funded cover image which, with the title, made me initially think the book was going to be ‘Memoirs of an eBay seller’.

Moving on, and slightly swaying under the weightiness of the final two volumes for this bulletin, we have an amazing biography of cosmologist and mathematician E.A. Milne by his daughter Meg Weston Smith. A very valuable work of research in its own right, Beating the Odds contains an Oxford narrative (battling the University’s disdain for science in the 1930s, inviting Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr to Oxford as the first Rouse Ball Chair, living in Northmoor Road) and a battle to combine Christianity with cosmology.

Finally Death, Resurrection, and Human Destiny: Christian and Muslim Perspectives, with an afterword by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This volume fleshes out a conference held in 2012 and charts a decade of theological dialogue miles away from our current woes in Syria and Iraq and the heated rhetoric that goes with them. I would not characterise the book as an easy read. And if your disposition is atheistic, the scholarly qualities of the dialogue recorded here will not impress, given the assumed theology of what is being discussed. Let’s hand the last word to Williams: ‘We [Muslims, Jews, Christians] mean a good many diverse things by “resurrection”, but we are at one in seeing it as the exercise of a divine initiative never defeated by death.’

Image by dixieroadrash under Creative Commons licence.