Common Reading 2012: Anatomy of a financial disaster

'The Big Short' book coverBy the time the public learned of the 2008 U.S. stock market crash, it had been happening for more than a year. Author and journalist Michael Lewis sought out a relatively obscure handful of Wall Street hedge-fund managers – minor players even in their own companies – to answer the questions of who knew about the oncoming financial disaster and why they were unable, or unwilling, to stop it.

The result was The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, originally published in 2010. SMU has chosen Lewis’ work as the class of 2016’s first-year Common Reading Experience – the book every member of the Fall 2012 incoming class will read and discuss.

In an e-mail announcing the selection, Associate Provost Harold Stanley cited Lewis’ ability to “[weave] the stories of some lesser-known players in the financial crisis to illustrate … specific examples of corporate greed run amok as well as certain intrinsic ills of Wall Street in general.”

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Lewis is perhaps best known for his sports writing; his best-sellers include The Blind Side and Moneyball. Yet his knowledge of Wall Street culture comes from an insider’s perspective. His first book, Liar’s Poker, was an autobiographical account of his disillusioning experiences at the investment bank Salomon Brothers during the “greed is good” era of the 1980s. The Big Short describes the Wall Street players who created the arcane credit default swap market that bet against the subprime mortgage bubble and made millions as families lost their homes.

“[Lewis] has accessibly and expertly described a broken financial system that rewards bad decisions and fraudulent alchemy … then shifts the inevitable losses to the strapped U.S. taxpayer,” wrote Chuck Leddy in his Boston Globe review.

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Since its beginning in 2004, the Common Reading Experience has brought SMU faculty, staff and new students together for an introduction to the intellectual experiences of college life. Incoming first-year students receive the Common Reading book during summer AARO sessions and discuss it at informal gatherings led by SMU faculty and staff members and student leaders at the beginning of the fall term.

Past SMU Common Reading books include Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, How to Be Good by Nick Hornby, The Devil’s Highway by Luís Alberto Urrea, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The selection committee is now seeking faculty and staff leaders for the discussion event that has become one of the first shared experiences for new students during their first week on the Hilltop. Each discussion leader will receive a free copy of the book.

To volunteer, contact Diana Grumbles, senior lecturer in English and director of first-year writing.

Join SMU’s Common Reading group at Facebook

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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