Thursday, July 10, 2008

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

What can be said about the book that won Thomas Mann the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929?

I found three things particularly interesting.

Second Breakfast

The characters in this novel regularly have "second breakfast." Since this was publish years before The Hobbit, et al, I can only wonder if this was the genesis of the Bilbo Baggins' strange and wonderful eating customs.

Business Practices

When Hugo Weinschenk is arrested, convicted and jailed for fraud, the book make clear that the only difference between Hugo the the other businessmen (they were all men in the 19th century) was that Hugo was caught. I think about this each time another round of business executives is convicted for some new corporate scandal (savings and loan, junk bonds, Enron, home mortgages, back dating stock options, et al). I imagine that these few people are convicted for what was certainly common practice among many companies and management teams. I find it interesting that even in the 19th century business people were convicted and jailed for commonly practiced business methods when those practices became widely known and the climate changed.


If you ever wonder why people are attracted to alternative medicine, you only need to look back to 19th century doctors. Dr. Grabow treats all illness with three responses: a description of the symptoms in Latin, an ambiguous prognosis, and " a strict diet, a little squab, a little french bread." While this is certainly better than cupping and leaches, it certainly doesn't demonstrate any benefit from consulting a doctor.

Interestingly, doctors still label diseases with Latinate symptoms, such as tachycardia which means "fast heart" and bronchitis which means "sick lungs." With the emphasis on full disclosure to prevent malpractice suits, doctors offer unreadable and ambiguous prognoses for any surgical procedure. If it was up to me, I'd prefer a little squab and some french bread.

In summary this is an epic novel of about 300,000 words, maybe three times longer than the typical "New York Times Bestseller." It was published in 1901, but the reads like a modern novel. Even though Thomas Mann wrote it in his mid-20s, it delves into topics of mid-life and old age with sensitivity and insight. I'd recommend it for anyone old enough to look back on their career and family life.

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