On the Brink
You had to know that the ongoing economic downturn was going to generate more than its fair share of books. For years to come the events and all that led to them will be studied and analyzed, looking for patterns, looking for answers. And already we are beginning to see a steady stream of books seeking to make their mark. Too Big to Fail sought to be a definitive account, but was clearly too quick to store shelves to be that. More relevant to the long-term historical record is On the Brink, the account of Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury from 2006 through to the time that President Obama moved into the White House.
Is this book business? Politics? Memoir? I hardly even know how to categorize it. Those categories all overlap as Paulson weaves together this account of the crisis as he saw it and, in his unique position, sought to overcome it.
On the Brink is less about what caused the downturn and more about what Paulson and others did to help America get through it and, in time (hopefully), recover from it. These decisions are often exhaustively detailed in day-by-day and moment-by-moment fashion. Paulson kept meticulous records of what he did, who he called and who he interacted with and here he shares those records with the world. Whether talking to his wife about their Christian Science faith or talking to politicians from nations on the other side of the world, he seeks to let the reader into his life.
This is not fast-paced reading; in fact, for most people it may well prove exhausting. Paulson does not expend a lot of effort in explaining the background of the crisis or in adapting the lexicon of his business world. Many terms will pass over the head of the average reader, I am sure (this was certainly the case with me and would have been more notable still had I not already read several books on the topic).
Yet, despite the plodding pace, it is interesting to hear Paulson’s defense of the decisions he and others had to make. It is easy for the armchair quarterbacks among us to announce what they would have done in his place, but as Paulson provides a glimpse at the decisions he was facing and the political realities he had to deal with, the black and white does turn to varying shades of gray. Though you may still rue the decisions he made, at the very least I believe you will have greater respect for the man and the grueling choices he faced.
Verdict: Read it if you just need to know what happened and why.