Book Review: From Silk to Silicon

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There are two common aphorisms about history. One is that “Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.” But Mark Twain cautions us that history does not repeat, but it does rhyme. One of the benefits of reading From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives by Jeffrey Garten is that you get a sense of one of those rhymes.

Garten sat out to tell the story of globalization through ten extraordinary lives. He wrote a book that gives us an idea of what it’s like to live through an extraordinary period in history because that’s exactly what every one of his subjects did.

You might ask why he chose mini-biographies to look at the history of globalization. After all, as a business professor, he could analyze events in economic terms or theories of history. Instead, he chose a series of mini-biographies. The answer comes early in the book when Garten says this:

“We often give too much credit to the power of ideas and not enough recognition to the importance of effectively implementing them on the ground; indeed, generating the purely intellectual breakthroughs is frequently the easy part of great transformations.”

The lives he chose to discuss are interesting in themselves. Here’s a list.

  • Genghis Khan
  • Prince Henry the Navigator
  • Robert Clive
  • Mayer Amshel Rothchild
  • Cyrus Field
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Jean Monnet
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Andrew Grove
  • Deng Xiaoping

I knew something about several people on the list, but I learned more about them from Garten’s bios. Even more exciting for me, there were several people on the list that I didn’t know a thing about, such as Robert Clive and Cyrus Field. Finding out about them, what they did, and why it mattered was a big plus.

If all you do is dip into the book and read a biography or two, you’ll probably get value for what you paid. If you read the entire book from beginning to end, you’ll be able to see themes emerge and you’ll gain the understanding of globalization that Garten was after.

There’s one more big plus. Garten is an academic, and most of the time when an academic writes a book like this, he or she begins with a theory and then seeks out things to prove it. Often, the author clings tenaciously to the original theory in spite of the very evidence he or she presents. That’s not true here, and it’s both refreshing and insightful.

Jeffrey Garten began his book with the idea that the people he had selected were visionaries, people who took the long view and looked at the big picture. Here’s how he describes what happened to that idea as he wrote the book.

“Having delved into their lives more deeply, however, I came to a different conclusion: they did not have grand strategies in mind, and they did not spend much time envisioning the major transformations for which they would be responsible. None set out to change the broader world, just the smaller, personal one they could see and understand.”

That rings true for me. I’ve known and studied several great and accomplished people. It’s always been my impression that they did not see their world in the same way that we see it when we look back on their accomplishments. Some dealt with the problems that were in front of them and followed the chain of causation wherever it led. Others had a single great cause and their understanding of that cause developed as they worked through the challenges of making it real.

Bottom Line

If you want to gain a greater understanding of globalization and how it came to be the way it is, From Silk to Silicon will increase your understanding. If you’re interested in how people of great achievement do what they do, you’ll find some compelling biographies in the book. Either way, it’s worth buying.


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