Andrew Ross Sorkin, one of the lead economics reporters for the New York Times, spent over 300 hours interviewing the cream of the 2008 Wall Street crop to write up Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System – and Themselves, an 800-page look at the failure of Lehman brothers and the resulting fallout. The book is a timely release, emerging just a year after the major events it covers, and carries with it both the imprimatur of the NYT and a cast of interviewed characters that would impress almost any cabinet-level interview committee.
Sorkin’s writing is clear and concise, and he takes time to build the major players up as characters, with lives and histories outside of the monumental banking calamities of late ’08. This leads to smoother reading for those who aren’t experts in the field, while also offering gossipy tidbits to those who are already familiar with the cast (for instance: Hank Paulson’s habit of continuing conversations through open bathroom doors).
In fact, Sorkin’s focus seems to be almost exclusively on the human failings and human suffering on Wall Street that the fall of Lehman — and near dissolution of AIG — caused. While this storytelling impulse and newspaper-bred simplification is usually the book’s strength, its weakness lies in its inability, particularly in the first half, to draw any conclusions or even to allow for any real villains. Nearly everyone in the book is depicted as trying their hardest; nearly everyone in the book believes they’re pursuing noble ends, whether it’s protecting shareholders or taxpayers. Sorkin seems, at times, to be captured by the subject he’s interviewed, allowing some — particularly Paulson — to take over their own stories with loud, long declarations of innocence and effort. Others, like Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner, fare less well, perhaps because they seem less willing to brazenly defend themselves.
All-in-all, Too Big to Fail is a must-read for anyone who wants a clear, concise picture of the decisions that led to Lehman’s bankruptcy and the resulting chaotic weeks on Wall Street. It’s not a bad read, either, for those who’ve been following the crisis day-to-day, but readers won’t find a lot of new information here, just a smoother packaging and a long list of justifications.