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Michael Lewis on Warren Buffett

06/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Lewis has up at the New Republic a book review of Alice Schroeder's biography of Warren Buffett, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, which, beyond everything else, has to be one of the worst titles for a biography in years. But no matter. Lewis' review is nuanced: He suggests that the book is too long, too windy, too reverential. But he also admits that it's highly readable and full of revelatory personal details -- perhaps more than Buffett himself might have wished.

The review has already generated blogospheric comment: Felix Salmon at Reuters characterizes it as a "monster" at 4,700 words (which is actually around the normal length of a New Republic essay-review) and suggests that Lewis has done a "takedown" on Buffett. As one of Salmon's commenters notes, that isn't really the case based on the review itself. It's only the case compared to the caricature of Buffett that's floated around for years -- a portrait that was substantially revised by Roger Lowenstein's fine 1995 biography of Buffett, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, which Lewis fails to mention. In fact, for anyone that's been paying attention, Buffett was "taken down" years ago, if that characterization refers to the reality of the man, not the myth.

Still, Lewis' review does focus on the complexities of Buffett's life and reputation. His family background was difficult, he was by no means a perfect child (a penchant for shoplifting, a stubborn streak in school, a deep desire bordering on mania to remain in Omaha and an adherence to simple, child-like appetites) whose personal life with his children, his first wife and her replacement, is at considerable odds with the image of beneficent sagedom. He was something of a prodigy from the start; Lewis points out astutely how he learned from Ben Graham but almost immediately reinterpreted the pessimistic tenets of Graham and Dodd investing for his own more optimistic mind set. In this review, Lewis paints a portrait of Buffett that is far stranger than the myth. But it is an oddness, as Lewis admits, that brings some humanity to him.

Take away the astounding success, the brilliant use of PR (as Lewis notes, Buffett often seems incapable of saying something boring, though in recent years he has tested that, particularly on cable TV), the sheer good sense, and you're left with a man who for many years focused with remarkable discipline on one thing: Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A). Buffett arranged his entire life around this all-consuming preoccupation, with some time out for bridge; and both Lowenstein's and Schroeder's biographies describe how wives, girl friends, children, colleagues were essentially required to cater to his needs. Lowenstein has a revealing anecdote of Buffett at home while a birthday party for one of his children is going on reading analyst reports, lost in his own world. (How Katharine Graham, who was hardly one to subordinate herself to anyone after her husband died, fit into this lifestyle is a mystery.)

In short, Buffett is a grind and, according to Schroeder, stingy. Indeed, much of his success (though not all: there's a deep, anomalous genius at work here too) stems from this obsessional focus on investing and his willingness to subordinate his life to its ends. There's nothing wrong with that, though it's hard on the people around you. In The New York Times Tuesday, David Brooks offers a column, bristling with his usual academic studies, that argues that the best CEOs are hardworking, anal-retentive, detail-oriented grinds, and that fancy degrees, charismatic personalities and great fame perform less well than a sheer focus on execution. That's a not a huge surprise, though it runs counter to much of the conventional wisdom that sees CEOs as magicians, and one could question the methodology of studies that compare CEO performance across industries. But what Brooks never says but is undeniably true is that while we laud CEOs, they are really just masters of large bureaucracies -- in some cases closer to governmental agencies than, say, entrepreneurial startups. Bureaucracies operate by routine; they are weighed down by legacy operations; and for any CEO this side of Steve Jobs, the opportunity for creativity is limited. Berkshire Hathaway is primarily an insurance company, with a large investment portfolio. Buffett is creative, but in a very narrow, if astoundingly successful, way.

But Americans love a winner, and they tend to extrapolate hard-won success in business into something larger: a philosophy of life, a deep wisdom, a link to larger cosmic forces. Buffett has spent his entire life thinking about and seeking the accumulation of money. He has been uniquely brilliant at it. He has been able to communicate hard-won truths about doing business in a rare, very American, plainspoken style; and, looking at the life as a whole, Lewis admits there is something "deeply admirable" about it. But Buffett is, as Lowenstein's book suggests, an American capitalist above everything else. He is a sage and a philosopher in the same vein as someone he apparently once read with great avidity: Dale Carnegie. The irony of Buffett is that his talent and his will are unfathomable, but his flaws are not. The one thing we can truly understand about him is the part of him that's just like the rest of us.

Robert Teitelman is the editor in chief of The Deal. For more check out The Deal