It’s time for my content recommendations and reviews for Jul-21: a book, a podcast, articles and a couple of videos.
Let's get started.
We are going through an epochal period - a period which will be studied by several historians for decades from now.
Among the many questions they study, one prominent one would be: Could we have limited the impact of this pandemic?
When they do that, this might be the first book they would pick up.
Michael Lewis is among the most successful non-fiction storytellers in the world. Several of his books have become blockbuster movies (Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short) starring Hollywood A-listers.
For some strange reason, I hadn't read his books so far. Thankfully I corrected that anomaly with this one. And realised why he is such a big deal.
The guy is a MASTER of narrative. He is to books what Christopher Nolan is to cinema.
“The only useful definition of narrative is that it's a controlled release of information. The way in which you release that information is all up to you.” - Christopher Nolan
Here's the story of the book in one line: A bunch of committed public health professionals in the US anticipate the Covid-19 pandemic and are ready with a plan that could have potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives; but they are ignored and thwarted by a combination of cynical politics and dysfunctional institutions.
That's it. This one-line story is told in a gripping manner over 320 pages.
And almost throughout, the book makes you wonder: 'what might have been' had the right people been in charge.
Ah, the people. So here's the deal with Michael Lewis. When writing narrative non-fiction, instead of writing the story through the eyes of the key institutions or the overall system, he envisions it through the eyes of a set of individuals. Let's call them the protagonists.
By using this technique, he makes it easier for readers to 'follow' the story, since there aren't a multiplicity of perspectives that crowd the pages.
Admittedly, this approach does give the book a bias - Lewis has clearly picked a side in the story. But he has done so unequivocally and without obfuscation.
Now, having chosen this approach, Lewis' real magic is in his execution.
Several Storytelling lessons
Three techniques stood out for me: one the use of rich, layered backstories. Two, the focus on key moments. And three, the sheer poetic writing.
1. The backstories
Like an expert archeologist, Lewis digs deep to unearth several character-revealing incidents for the story's protagonists. For example, Chapter 1 opens almost like a movie scene, with one of the protagonists (Dr. Charity Dean, a public health official in Santa Barbara, California) being faced with the body of a woman who's died of a mysterious (and highly infectious) TB infection.
The rest of the chapter alternates between the present (where Dr Dean struggles to get an autopsy done on the body, by a reluctant coroner) and her past backstory as a struggling yet fiercely determined public health professional.
Here's how that chapter ends:
"Now she held the young woman’s lungs in her hands. This Jell-O. Outside the human body, lung tissue didn’t hold its form. And now she could see just how sure the coroner had been that none of this would ever happen: he had nowhere to put them. The only container in sight was an orange plastic bucket from Home Depot. She grabbed the woman’s lungs and placed them into it, then tossed the bucket into the car and drove away. To the men she left behind, the entire scene would remain a vivid memory; to her it was almost just another day in her life as the local health officer. They had no idea of the things she had done, or what she was capable of. The coroner obviously hadn’t even considered the possibility that she was a trained surgeon. “Men like that always underestimate me,” she said. “They think my spirit animal is a bunny. And it’s a fucking dragon.”
Now that entire Chapter 1 had nothing to do with the Covid pandemic. It happened several years before, and the gist of the chapter could be explained in that final line about her spirit animal: Basically Lewis wants to say, ' You don't mess with Dr. Charity Dean'.
Oh but that would have been so dull and boring. Instead, Lewis takes us deep into the backstory, and really shows us... no, makes us feel what sort of a person Dr. Charity Dean is.
And by the time he is done with the backstories of the protagonists, you are completely rooting for them to win.
2. The focus on key moments
Throughout the narrative, Lewis constantly looks for critical moments... and then amplifies them.
For instance, let's take a moment featuring my favourite character in the book, Dr. Carter Mecher, a senior public health expert. Carter was the unofficial conductor orchestrating the efforts of a group (who called themselves 'The Wolverines') to predict the pandemic's impact and come up with the right recommendations.
Carter is a behind-the-scenes doer and is brilliant with details... but he's also a big-picture thinker and a natural storyteller.
To illustrate this point, Lewis describes a heart-rending moment.
In a crucial meeting, Carter is trying to convince the US CDC to adopt 'social distancing' as a strategy to battle a potential pandemic (this is several years pre-Covid). At that time, the only reference point of a major global pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1919.
The CDC was sceptical. After all, distancing measures such as closing down schools, offices, restaurants could be highly unpopular and damaging to the economy. There had been several 'false alarms' before this...
Carter realises he needs to change track, to convince the reluctant officials.
Here's how Lewis describes the moment:
"The way to change minds was by first changing hearts. Carter ceased his appeals to reason and began to appeal to emotion—which is to say that he stopped making an argument and began to tell a story. His story, at its core, was about the hole left when someone dies, especially when the death is preventable, and the someone is a child.
He’d put up on a screen a heart-tugging photograph of a nine-year-old girl in 1918, smiling and dressed for church. Then he’d describe how she and other small children would end up as bodies, stacked liked cordwood. He’d even put up a picture of his mother as a child and tell the story of her next-door neighbor. The woman who lived next door to his mom had given birth to four children. After the third had died of flu, the undertaker had told the woman that if the fourth child died, he’d bury him for free."
3. The writing chops
Here's a memorable para, pulsing with rhythm:
"Richard played chess and quoted Borges; Carter took apart pickup trucks and put them back together. Much of what Richard loved doing could be done in a white linen suit. Much of what Carter loved doing left his hands black. Richard liked to borrow a phrase, Carter a tool. Richard was top-down—he conversed easily with the fancy academics and important policy people, and they with him. Carter was bottom-up—there was no fact, and no person, trivial enough to evade his curiosity. Richard left every classroom he entered at or near the top; Carter often just left the classroom."
Now, while all this is good, the book does have one flaw. Given the exclusive spotlight on the protagonists, some of the other characters (especially the senior CDC employees) come across as weak, ineffective and frankly, culpable. A good reporter would have included their side of the story.
Perhaps a historian might address this imbalance.
Meanwhile, Michael Lewis's cautionary tale is required reading for anyone interested in public health - and definitely anyone who'd like to read and learn from a gifted storyteller at the peak of his powers.
If you have heard the 'Business Wars' podcast before, you'd know how good it is.
If not, you are welcome.
This highly produced show narrates the story of major business rivalries (Pepsi-Coke, Netflix-Blockbuster, Tiktok-Instagram) in an edge-of-the-seat, compelling manner, with taut scripting, immersive sound effects and a great voiceover by host David Brown.
Like Lewis, they too deep-dive into the crucial moments that matter and hold your attention throughout the show.
In this series called 'Vaccine Wars', I absolutely LOVED how they've narrated the story of the race between various pharma and biotech companies to make the vaccines for Covid-19.
Here are some of the new things that I learnt:
Highly recommended listening.
This interview of Michael Lewis on 'Premonition' is a great addendum to the book. Michael's voice comes through more clearly and you really get to see the 'why' behind the book.
b. The Pied Piper of SPACs by Charles Duhigg (New Yorker)
If you follow the world of markets and investment, you have surely heard of Chamath Palihapitiya. A bit like the Elon Musk of the investment world, he is highly influential, adored by many and... also very controversial.
This fascinating New Yorker profile paints a vivid picture of this complex leader.
Warning, if you happen to be a Chamath fan: It's not a flattering one.
'Letters Live' is a cool video series where interesting letters are read out aloud to a large audience (what a concept for a show!).
In this video, Brit star Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Dr. Strange) does a dramatic reading of a hilarious letter written by a New York copywriter.
Watch how every muscle in his face contorts to express each word in a vivid manner.
b. Oversimplified: World War 1 (Part 1 - 6:23)
History made fun is one of my favourite themes. In this superb series of videos called Oversimplified, the creators do a great job of telling engaging and hilarious animated stories of famous events from history.
This 2-part series on WW1 was so good, I even showed it to my 9-year-old son.
Warning - you might go into binge mode with their series of videos!
That's it folks: my recommended reads, listens and views for the month.