Friday, December 8, 2017

Book Review: Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused by Mike Dash

I've rarely had a book that was this kind of up-and-down for me. Parts of it I thoroughly enjoyed, and parts made my eyes glaze over and were a slog. It's a history of the tulip bubble in the Netherlands in the 1630s. I thought with my slight background in economics, I'd be just fine with it.

It started off with a fascinating history of tulips and where they came from and how they eventually, over hundreds of years, got to the Netherlands. Also how they got to looking like tulips, and how the more interesting tulips happened. But there was a bog down when explaining guilders and how to try to compare them to contemporary money, which for me was pretty much a fail. There are no apples to compare to. In a time when it was common to own a horse but only 2 outfits of clothing, there just aren't good benchmarks to hang any kind of exchange rate to. But the middle eastern rulers who first discovered how awesome tulips are were utterly fascinating in a trainwreck kind of way.

Then we get the buildup with tulips becoming popular among the flower set. And how it expanded to investors, and then to common folk. That also fluctuated between more interesting parts about people from other industries selling their main way of making money (for example, a weaver would sell his loom) to get money to buy tulips, which was a new definition for me of going all-in. But when the numbers came out, my eyes glazed over again. I have nothing against numbers, but when they seem to be fairly random and don't mean anything to me, it's hard to find them compelling. If I told you tulips were selling for 600 gazilliers, that means nothing. Is that a lot, or a little? Mr. Dash did try to make the relation but it didn't work and so he might as well have been using a gibberish or fictional measurement of money as I understand the value of a 17th century Dutch guilder as well as a gazillier (which, for the record, I just made up. You got that, right?)

So anyway, I stopped a couple of times, and had to push myself to finish. I did learn a lot (and at the end he talks about a slightly later tulip bubble in France, one a century later, and he goes back to the Turkish rulers who still loved the tulips and why they fell out of power, which was a fun note to end on, although not happy per se.) I'm glad I read it. But it felt a bit like a book I was reading for school. Like I knew it was good for me and I knew I'd appreciate it if I saw it through (which was accurate) but I wasn't always reading it because I was enjoying it.

I have owned this book for a long time. No recollection how I acquired it but if I had to guess, I'd bet I bought it at an independent bookstore, although since I acquired it in 2011, it's also a likely I got it at a Borders GOOB sale.

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