Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients From: Jude Wanniski Re: Harold Evans & His Great Book
When I first heard about a new book just out on American entrepreneurs and innovators I figured I could do without it. I have so many books stacked up that people have sent me as gifts or in hopes I would read and review them that even though it was written by Harold Evans, I decided to pass. Evans, a Brit who is a big fan of America and one of the great journalists of our time, had me think twice, though. I was tempted. When Patricia asked me for some Christmas ideas several weeks ago, I mentioned the book, and lo and behold there it was under the tree.
The first surprise was its heft. Several pounds of book. It’s only 500 pages, but on glossy paper, the better to show off the hundreds of photographs of the subjects. And it is really the size of a coffee-table book, about 12 x 8. Because I do most of my casual reading in bed, a big, heavy book is discouraging right off the bat. I wondered if I should have instead asked for an Elmore Leonard detective pocketbook.
Now that I have lived with it for a while, though, I have decided it is absolutely the best book I’ve had in my hands in recent memory. It is a book I can recommend to all of you and anyone who is within earshot. And I’ve only started reading it!! How can that be?? It’s not even on the NYTimes bestseller list!!
The answer is in Harold Evan’s central idea of presenting brief (but not too brief) biographies of 50 or so fantastic men and women, where they came from, how the evolved from little up, the ideas that came to them, and how they fought to bring their inventions or innovations to fruition. You can actually get an idea of these chosen few by visiting a good encyclopedia. Harold Evans, though, is not interested in encyclopedic facts and figures, but on just what it is about America itself that could produce these incredible people from the likes of Robert Fulton and the first successful steamboat services in the late 18th century to the Google boys of today, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
It’s going to take me the rest of 2005 to read and absorb all of They Made America. One story per week is enough, unless you have lots of time on your hands. But they are so beautifully researched and written I can easily imagine each one of them providing the foundation for a full-length motion picture. What I did was pick out three men who I’ve known something about, none of whom I would devote the time to read a full-length biography about: First Henry Ford and his Model T for the masses. Second A.P. Giannini, who founded the Bank of America for the masses. And third, Walt Disney, a really crazy guy who gave the masses Mickey Mouse and all that went with him.
The space Evans devotes to each, in text and photographs, was not only ample enough to inform me about their lives and inspirations, but also written with a crispness and texture than made it a pleasure to finish each of several thousand words without taking a break. And in the case of Giannini and Disney, I propped up the hefty book while reading in bed and still was gripped by the narrative sufficiently to read well after Patricia had conked out.
Hey, I thought I knew a lot about Giannini and had read books on the founding of the Bank of America, and how he built it into the premiere bank in the nation. But I never knew that when he died in 1949 his net worth was less than $500,000, or that through his entire career he systematically rejected pay raises or bonuses by his board of directors. He did so on the grounds that he was not interested in accumulating personal wealth, only in facilitating the flow of credit to the ordinary people who build the country from the bottom-up. He could offer lower interest rates if he passed on a megabuck salary. Hmmm.
And I thought I knew something about Henry Ford, but in They Made America I learned how he was similarly driven by a desire to produce an automobile for the common man, plus the details of how he and his partner, James Couzens, turned the industrial world upside-down one day in 1914 when they decided to pay their autoworkers $5 a day instead of the prevailing $2!!
Disney has been part of my life since I first saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Capitol Theatre in Pottsville, Pa., when I was still in short pants. But I never knew that Disney could never have made Snow White if it was not for Giannini and the Bank of America!!
One of the things I really love about the book is that Evans celebrates Michael Milken, not in a full-blown treatment, but at the end of the book in a half-page, which makes it quite clear he does not believe Mike deserved the treatment he got at the hands of the Establishment. Innovators and inventors by their very nature challenge the status quo, who view them as "the enemy" to be cut down in order to preserve the status quo.
This is an exciting book, a really important book. It is published by Little, Brown, who I’m sure is disappointed that it has not made the NYT bestseller list. But If there is someone at Little, Brown who sees what I see, they will market this book to the rest of the world, in at least a dozen languages, and they will find there is an audience among the eight billion that wants to know about what makes greatness happen here, so they might emulate us.
The good news is that while the book retails for $40, Amazon.com is offering them at $24. Get one for yourself and you will be in for a treat, one that will last for months, if not the balance of the year. You can learn all about Ted Turner, about Edwin Land and the Polaroid, Thomas Watson and IBM, Ida Rosenthal and the Maidenform Brassiere, Elisha Otis and his elevator, George Eastman and Kodak, Russell Simmons and Hip-Hop, Sam Colt and his revolver for the masses, and dozens more.