"I am not a reader, I am a writer." So goes the punchline to an old Russian joke about a reindeer herder who is applying to study philology at the Moscow State University.
I can certainly relate: Reading is difficult for me, writing - a breeze. Given a choice, I substitute the reading of big tomes like Leo Tolstoy's mega drama War and Peace for its Cliffs Notes version.
It's not that I don't want to read Alice Schroeder's The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life - I do, but the sheer weight of that book's 976 pages scares the daylights out of me. Why couldn't Alice just spend the time to digest her story into something more palatable to an average Joe, I thought. Bud Labitan must have read my thoughts, because a few days later I received an email from him telling me about his new book on Buffett and Munger.
I had no idea who Bud was, but was so impressed with his mind reading skills that I told him that I would review his book, if he sent it to me. He did, and about a week later the book was in my mailbox. Yesterday, I was stuck at my desk for most of the day and so, finally, got a chance to read it.
To fairly evaluate a book, one must first determine who its target audience is. So my first challenge in reading Labitan's book was trying to figure out who it was written for. Was it intended for a novice or an expert? Is it a guide to a novel investment process, an introduction to value investing in general, or, perhaps, a personal historical overview - a biography of sorts?
On the one hand, many terms used in the book are not first properly defined. On the other, the concepts presented are rather basic and examples pull numbers out of a virtual hat. Some personal stories from Buffett's and Munger's life are retold, but they were not selected for their heartwarming qualities and these retellings are so heavy in quotes that they fail to engage. In fact, the book relies on quotes so much (there are 124 of them, more than pages of content) that it makes you wonder if what you are reading is not, in fact, a report for a business class Bud took at Purdue.
In addition to quotes, the book is also heavy in name dropping. The two names most overused in the book are Benjamin Graham of the "used cigar butt" investing fame and Philip Fisher, a pioneer growth investor, who emphasized quality. Phil Carret, John Burr Williams, Lou Simpson, Jack Byrne and Charles Mizrahi get heavy mention as well. The one name that doesn't get enough mention is Rose Blumkin. Mrs. B. (born Rose Gorelick outside Minsk, Russia in 1893) started Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1937, sold a majority share to Buffett in 1983 and was still involved in day-to-day operations until shortly before her death at the age of 104. She is a legend!
Along with names of important people, the book prominently features names of businesses whose stock Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway owned over the years. Of course, GEICO, Coca Cola, Gillette and Kraft Foods make the requisite list. But in the end, the book simply boils down to rehashing and restating Buffett's investment philosophy of buying "at sensible prices of businesses that have good underlying economics and are run by honest and able people" ad nauseum.
If you savor every written word and are looking for a well written, properly edited and nicely formatted volume, this self-published booklet is not it. If you are interested in a comprehensive biography of Buffett and Munger, look elsewhere. If you are looking for "an amazing Behavioral Finance Formula" advertised on the book's back cover, you will not find it here. But if you, like Bud, think that the main purpose of a glossary is to add pages, even if it is of terms never used in the book - this is the book for you!
Despite all this, I did find some value in the book. Labitan, obviously, spent time studying Buffett and Munger and was able to pull many relevant quotes from Berkshire Hathaway Annual Stockholder Reports as well as from several other sources. The book is no substitute for Cliff Notes on Alice Schroeder's Snowball, but it is short and if skimmed to skip the many repetitions and ignore the few available details that are incomprehensible anyway, can provide a quick introduction to the subject of value investing as practiced by Buffett and Munger.
Now, Alice, can I have a Snowflake?