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How not to read Shakespeare

As a little break in my financial reading and in an effort to become a little more cultured, I picked up Nicholas Royle’s How to Read Shakespeare. The idea of this paperback series is to introduce the language and the meaning of a series of great thinkers.

This book has reminded me of how much I hate literary interpretation. The first chapter, which focuses on The Merchant of Venice (my favourite Shakespeare play by some distance), makes some interesting observations. For example, that Shakespeare uses the word ‘corner’ as an metaphor to female genitalia throughout many of his plays, and that it this may have links to the cornu, or ‘horns of cuckoldry’. This is vaguely interesting, although it appears Shakespeare used many words as innuendo for female genitalia (Hamlet: Do you think I talk of country matters?)

What is frustrating about this book is that the scholarly interesting cross-referencing and sensible etymology is followed by examples of such utter tripe that the whole book is spoilt. For example, the author suggests that the Bard invented the word ‘witsnapper’ because it sounds a bit like his name – Wi[lliam] S[hakespe]ar[e]. It doesn’t. The idea is groundless and absurd, and stupidities like this cloud the book. I doubt I’ll bother with Chapter Two.

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Two dramas about sex, love and acceptance

In the past week I’ve watched Venus and Transamerica. The first is very British, the second wholly American. Nevertheless, they’re remarkably similar in many ways. Odd relationships, taboo subjects, the search for self, moral ambiguity and social disgust are dealt with cleverly by both. Transamerica is the funnier and the more uplifting (although it’s no comedy) while Venus is probably a little more challenging. This is mainly because, when men get beyond retirement, it is rather unfairly assumed that they should not lust after young, beautiful women.

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The long and the short of it

I’ve just finished John Kay’s The Long and the Short of It. In the terms of the analysts that the book derides, I’m upgrading my recommendation from a Hold to a Buy.The book does have some downsides: I think it over-promises on investment advice and, at times, it rehashes many ideas from the author’s regular columns in the Financial Times and elsewhere. For example, there is little in the chapter on future regulatory reform that isn’t said more succinctly in this Guardian piece. Perhaps this is a remnant of Kay’s working methods on his previous books The Hare and the Tortoise and Everlasting Lightbulbs, which were collections of columns by design. Still, this is only a problem for people who have read other John Kay books and articles. Readers new to his admirably direct and forthright style will not suffer this slightly disappointing déjà vu.

Despite these gripes, it’s still a good, and quick, read – a good deal better than Hugo Dixon’s Introduction to Finance, which I struggled through at the end of last year. In fact, I read Kay’s book so quickly that I’ve set aside half an hour this weekend to nip back through the investment advice sections and précis the advice. The big lesson I do remember (and it is a key theme through the book) is that holding many unrelated and diversified risks can reduce portfolio risk more than just holding supposedly safe blue chips. Frankly, the book was worth it for this advice alone.

It’s also worth mentioning that the book has a great ‘Bookshelves and bookmarks’ bibliography at the end, with some further reading recommendations. I’m now awaiting about six tomes from Amazon Marketplace to build up my investment library.

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Deeper into finance

I’v always been into microeconomics (particularly of the individual and of the firm) but the breadth of that field means that I’ve not really ever got to grips with specialist financial products in anything more than the broadest terms. I understand the principles and could probably have a decent conversation on Mogdaliani-Miller or Black-Scholes, but two days ago I didn’t understand what CDOs were, or how they were created. Thankfully, John Kay’s The Long and the Short of It is proving useful to refresh the basics, and this Harvard Business School article (found via Marginal Revolution) was very interesting on structured finance and the limitations of rating agencies. I recommend both.

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