‘Financial dictionaries don’t get much better than this’ – HOW TO $P€AK MONE¥ by John Lanchester

htsmjlThe last John Lanchester book we covered on this site was 2012’s Capital, Lanchester’s state-of-the-nation novel that surveyed the impact of the 2008 global financial crash on a hodge-podge of representative Londoners – or, as our reviewer put it, on ‘a Richard Curtis film worth of cultural stereotypes’. A long, clunky drag of a book – actually a fair reflection of the after-effect of the financial crisis, when we think about it – Capital was an unfortunate blip on Lanchester’s otherwise stellar track record, and it’s a particularly irritating blip because it’s covering the same ground – economic analysis and social impact – that he examines and explains with skill and humour and apparent ease in his non-fiction. 2010’s Whoops! (which, though this might be apocryphal, is said to have been the accidental outcome of his research for poor old Capital) laid out for the layperson the basics of what actually happened when the banks went under – what a subprime mortgage and a credit default swap actually is, and which type of deals buggered the while system up – and while the broadsheet reviews criticized some of his analyses of cause and effect, it nonetheless made for a fascinating read for those of us who thought they’d never curl up with an economics primer of a winter’s evening.

The latest book, then, is in the same vein, though it’s in many ways a simpler read: HOW TO $P€AK MONE¥ is a lexicon – or a dictionary or catalogue – of the oftentimes arcane vocabulary that makes up the language Lanchester dubs ‘money’. That is, economists and financial specialists and journalists and bankers and traders and the likes share a set of words and phrases that are opaque to the rest of us, but that yet dominate our lives, because, in this neo-liberal promised land of ours, the market is the (evil, unelected) king of the castle, and if we don’t know what its staff and extended family are yammering on about, we feel alienated and disempowered and generally unable to interact with, let alone form opinions upon or even influence, this massive all-powerful critter. So what Lanchester’s done is to break it down into its key terms, which he’s then explained and cross-referenced as simply as is feasible without entirely diluting the complexity of the issues at stake. Whether you get your Adam Smith confused with your JM Keynes, or you’ve assumed that Gary Shteyngart invented the HNWI; whether you think the ECB and ESM and IMF are social media acronyms, or you’ve always gotten the G8 mixed up with the G20 and you thought the G7 was a typo; or whether or not you realised that QE stood for anything other than Liz Windsor, this book will set you straight. Joking aside, though, it’s genuinely interesting; Lanchester dismantles the financial infrastructures just enough for it to start to make sense to newbies, such that we guarantee that after reading this, the financial news really will make substantially more sense. His style is informal – if erring a little too much at times on a boys-will-be-boys blokey humour that isn’t the most pleasing to us hardcore feminists (a pun on the Swedish Model is a case in point) – but he’s very informed and clearly hugely interested in the subject matter, and that really transmits itself into the text. He bookends the lexicon itself with a pair of somewhat proselytizing, but still very engaging, essays on the state of the world, although (as he remarks himself) he doesn’t take as hard-left a line as many readers might expect. While the book will likely appeal more to lefties anyway, in terms of its scathing attitude to many of the events and deals and attitudes and policies he uses as case-studies to explicate the terminology, the basic dictionary format ought to be equally as useful a tool for a more right-wing reader, because, you know, leverage is leverage whatever colour your campaign rosette. The final few pages of the book contain a guide to further reading, and it’s testimony to Lanchester’s skill that not only did we look forward to reading this book during our lunch-breaks, but we’re also now tempted to take his advice and check out more specialised texts on the topic.

Lastly, if you’re going to read this, there’s no immediate use-by date, but it is particularly interesting right now as the Eurozone goes into a tailspin following the Greek election of a hard-left government: many of Lanchester’s entries use the now-five-year-old Euro Crisis as a touch-stone for this or that policy, and the current situation is as good as any a testing-ground for your new vocabulary as the entire debate over Greece’s future is being hashed over, not in the humanitarian terms their new government itself is focusing on, but in the lingo of economics and finance, or, as Lanchester would say, money. Theory meets practice: now you try.

Any Cop?: Financial dictionaries don’t get much better than this.

 

Valerie O’Riordan


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