Barbarians at the Gate

This book is meticulous. It has an incredibly clever cover. It was eye-opening (not in the "oh, LBOs are bad!" sense 1, but in the the "oh, industrial multinationals are a lot more interesting and sprawling than I had previously conceived!" sense). It is, for the most part, immensely entertaining. If you like books about business, this is a really good one — in the general atmosphere as Liar's Poker ↗, though Burroughs is much more of a grounded and journalistic writer than Michael Lewis.

What didn't I like? For starters, I think the greatest writers have a talent at turning exposition into powerful vignettes in their own right — think of The Path to Power, where Caro turns the sprawling progeny of the Texas hill country into a compelling novella in of itself. Burroughs introduces a character and you are immediately thrown into an excursus about where they grew up, what firms they bounced around, broad snippets of their personality, and so on — it's useful, but it quickly feels so rote.

Reading through my writeup of Days of Rage ↗ (written by the author twenty-five years later), I am struck at how I took umbrage with Burroughs' level of prescriptivism, and how it didn't always vibe with his journalistic style. Maybe that take deserves re-evaluation, because I think I had a bit of the opposite feeling here: the back half of this book, once you settled into a sense of "here are the three-to-four competing parties and they are jockeying for control", it felt...very unsatisfyingly narrativistic, as if I was reading through a patchwork of Wall Street Journal columns pasted together. It wasn't bad prose, but it didn't go beyond a very persuasively thorough relation of the facts and conversations at hand.

And, here's the thing — "a very persuasively thorough relation of the facts and conversations at hand" is still pretty interesting! It was a fascinating story. But the thing that makes me pause from putting this on the tier of Caro is the lack of, I don't know, revelation.

Read this book; don't expect the world from it, just expect a great story.


  1. Though along these lines, I hadn't quite realized until reading just how similar the '08 financial crisis was to the LBO crisis. It turns out that if a financial instrument is objectively risky and fosters an environment where the goal is fee collection over value creation, bad things happen — who knew?

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