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David Tanen's Guest Review:

The recent meteoric rise and fall of the NASDAQ Composite Index reminds us what happens when price and value detach as it did in the tulip market in early seventeenth century Holland.  Mike Dash vividly documents this floral phenomena in Tulipomania: The Story Of The Worlds Most Coveted Flower and The Extraordinary Passions It Aroused.  Dash takes us from early in the first millennium when tulips were first domesticated to their rise in the Ottoman empire to Holland, February 5, 1637, where a single bulb could have been exchanged for "eight fat pigs, four fat oxen, twelve fat sheep, twenty-four tons of wheat, forty-eight tons of rye, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of eight-guilder beer, two tons of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a silver drinking cup, a pack of clothes, a bed with mattress and bedding and a ship."  At a time when a well-off merchant earned approximately 3000 guilders annually, the highest documented sale of a tulip bulb was over 5000 guilders.

This is an in-depth chronicle of the spread of tulips first found growing at high elevation in Asia and spread by Turkish nomads.  Dash's thoroughness in his description of these early years might be a bit much for non-tulipmaniacs but as he details their significance in the Ottoman Empire he picks up steam.  He paints a lush portrait of life in Istanbul with the Ottoman sultans beginning with Mehmed the Conqueror in the fifteenth century. This is as much a story of horticulture as it is of cultural history.

From Istanbul to the United Provinces of the Netherlands of the sixteenth century, Dash takes us on a fascinating migration of happenstance  (the first bulbs are believed to have been shipped with some textiles and eaten as onions).  The history lesson continues with the Dutch Revolt, religious intolerance and even some marauding pirates known as the Sea Beggars.  It is detailed and well documented and Dash puts it into a coherent context setting up what will become the mania.

This is more than a story of flowers.  It is a history of aficionados, opportunists, politics and economics (including one of the earliest futures markets).  The final years leading up to the boom and bust in the tulip market are brought vividly to life by Dash who paints a colorful picture of the raucous life of the Dutch tavern "colleges," where much of the tulip business transpired, worthy of Jan Steen himself.  It is good that Dash utilizes language so effectively as there are no illustrations of the magical flowers that created such a furor.  This is the true-life story of politics, greed, alcohol, financial leverage and tulips.  To put this history into a contemporary setting all one need do is to replace tulips with tech stocks and you have the late 1990s into early 2000.  Four hundred years from now I wonder if someone as gifted as Mike Dash will write about and how it took an entire nation on a roller coaster ride.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds (1841)(Charles MacKay  1814-89)

Well, I haven't yet been able to find David's recommended book, Tulipomania.  But his review did remind me of another really unique and fascinating book: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay.  Amazingly enough, this 150 year old book is still just as timely as the day it was written, almost every story on the Internet Bubble references it at some point, and it remains readily available, you're even likely to find it in the remainder bin at Barnes and Noble for just a couple of  dollars.  I recommend that you buy it.

MacKay's book, while it also devotes a section to the Tulipomania craze in Holland, is more wide ranging and includes chapters on the South Sea Bubble, the Crusades, Alchymists, dueling and other crazes.  Throughout, he focusses on repeated episodes when entire societies got caught up in these irrational hysterias and behaved as if the laws of science or economics had been temporarily suspended.  In every case, hope overcame reason, as folks labored under the delusion that this time was somehow different, that their form of cultural madness was unique and actually made sense.  Always, and sadly, they were wrong.

The most interesting aspect of these hysterias is just what their capacity to stampede entire populations could mean to a nation's politics.  We know in our own culture about horrible irrational episodes like the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII (see Orrin's review of ).  The herd mentality which such episodes reflect and which McKay portrays are particularly frightening for the vision they offer of what a pure (or purer) democracy, where mass sentiment is unchecked, might look like.

The version of the book that I own has a cover blurb by Andrew Tobias saying:  "If you read no more of this book than the first hundred pages--on money mania--it will be worth many times its purchase."  I couldn't agree more.  As David suggests, reading about Tulipomania gives you a weird frisson of recognition and it seems like you could just substitute the words "Tech Stocks" for "Tulips" every time it appears.  Were he alive today, Charles MacKay would likely be hard at work on a new chapter on the Internet Boom.  Read him and avoid such traps.



Grade: (B)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BIO: Charles Mackay (Spartacus)
    -ETEXT: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds Charles Mackay
    -ANNOTATED ETEXTS: Charles MacKay (Self Knowledge)
    -Tulipomania (History House)
    -U.S. Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center: History, Myths, and Romance
    -A Tale of Tulips
    -ESSAY: The Trouble with Bubbles (World Link)
    -ESSAY: Delusions of technology (Peter Jackson, Anchor Desk UK, ZD Net)
    -REVIEW: of TulipoMania The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused. By Mike Dash (Carol Peace Robins, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOK LIST: A reading guide for investors (Forbes)
    -BOOK LIST: Strictly Top Shelf  (Fredric Smoler, Worth)

    -ESSAY: Mass Delusions and Hysterias:  Highlights from the Past Millennium  (Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Goode, Skeptical Inquirer)
    -REVIEW:  Andrew Hacker: Back to Nature
       The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs
       The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell