Monday, June 07, 2010

The Exchange Artist

We history buffs are a bit prone to hyperbole from time to time. One of the most overused expressions we use in reviewing history books, for example, is that it 'reads like a novel.'

Well, I'd never quite understood how extraneous that description was until I read The Exchange Artist by Jane Kamensky. This was the first - the only - history book I've ever read that genuinely read like a novel - a thumb blistering page-turner that was literally unputdownable.

Ostensibly, it's a tale of 'high-flying speculation' and 'America's first banking collapse' but in reality it's much more focused than that - the biography of a singular young banker's son who almost single-handedly brought the economy of the fledgling United States crashing down around his ears.

His name was Andrew Dexter, Jnr - and he built a towering structure on a foundation of paper money - one that he knew might come crashing down the first time the economic winds blew in the wrong direction.

His vision - the Boston Exchange Coffee House, which was arguably America's first 'skyscraper' - cost $500,000 leveraged on a little less than $85 hard currency.

Jane Kamensky's exploration of Andrew Dexter's remarkable construction is prophetic in more ways than one. In her book, she describes how greed and shortsightedness allowed a man like Dexter to push the boundaries of his enterprise from 'speculation' into 'fraud' - and her book's publication, in 2008, falls just weeks before we all experienced exactly the same thing in real life - an economic implosion that mirrored the one Andrew Dexter caused almost two centuries beforehand.

Kamensky argues that this reoccuring obsession with speculation represents both the best and the worst of the American nature - it's an unceasing pattern that balances towering highs with crashing lows.

Since its very construction, she demonstrates, America was built on the notion that something could be bought with nothing; yet was ultimately proven to be worth exactly what you paid for it.

As somebody interested in history, The Exchange Artist is a fascinating tale of 19th century economic skullduggary. As somebody interested in economics and politics, it's an fascinating mirror of the crisis we face today.

(And as somebody who just enjoys a darn good read - following Andrew Dexter from his disgrace in Boston to his achievements later in his life is nothing less than a damn good story.)

In all honesty, I'd recommend The Exchange Artist simply on the grounds that it's the best-written history book I've ever picked up. Certain chapters don't thrill me, I'll admit (Kamensky delves into third-person narrative at one point, which is distracting) but the complete package is utterly remarkable - a real education into what makes this wonderful country tick.

But if that didn't convince you - I think anybody remotely interested in opinionating about the American economy (especially somebody as poorly informed as I am) needs to read this book so they have some vague historical perspective about what it is they're talking about.

It's a cliche that 'history repeats itself' - but a cliche that's clearly based in fact. If there's anything The Exchange Artist teaches us, it's that.

The Exchange Artist by Jane Kamensky is available from

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