The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Book Review)

He’s a man of international mystique. Businesses cower before him. Investors idolize him. Women…well, he’s no James Bond. But he’s so emblematic that few would bat an eye if his face appeared on a thousand dollar bill.

He is Warren Buffett. And Alice Schroeder, his authorized biographer, does a stellar job of revealing the man without exposing him; covering him in finite detail , faults and all, without sacrificing her deep respect for him. She captures the tycoon’s life from before he was born up to mid-2008, when he found himself shuffling, much to his own surprise, through stacks of undervalued bonds. Things change around Buffett, but his themes—picking extraordinary values, teaching, utter absorption in his work, and paradoxical variety of character traits—remain the same.


Like Buffett himself, the book doesn’t entertain slouches. Schroeder does a fine job of idiot-proofing some of the more elaborate concepts in the book, such as derivatives, but the 800-odd page tome is rather large to swallow in a byte-sized world. This is a book that you need to make time for.

The author’s style is graceful and respectful. It is alternately informative and intimate. At times, it appears as though Buffett himself wrote parts; during other chapters, Schroeder the journalist comes out, favoring facts over poetry. The stylistic fluctuations are minor, however, and they work well.

If there are flaws in the book, they have to do more with the details than the overall story. For example, the author mentions Carnegizing quite a few times before finally explaining it to the reader on page 500. It would have helped to clarify that earlier. Also, Schroeder’s fine attention to detail sometimes borders on irrelevant, until you progress and realize that even the more obscure tidbits—Buffett’s first wife Susie’s childhood illnesses come to mind—do either provide depth to characters or bear on their future development. That’s a sign of good editing, something that endures throughout the book.

The book hooks readers with an intimate portrait of Buffett in his office, then a description of Herbert Allen’s exclusive high-roller event in Sun Valley, Idaho, which introduces readers not only to the caliber of Buffett’s peers, but gives a glimpse into a world rarely uncovered by outsiders. After that, the book flows more or less in chronological order, from a biography of Warren’s parents all the way through to mid-2008.

Financial Lessons

Schroeder doesn’t teach you how to invest, but she does give readers a sweeping tour of American financial history through Mr. Buffett’s life, facilitating a sharper understanding of the US investing landscape before this past year’s dramatic fallout.

Warren Buffet was something of a child investing prodigy who has spent his lifetime building on his substantial natural skills. At the age of 10, he knew more about investing than the average American. He was a seasoned businessman and property owner by the age of 15. He can do his income taxes in his head.

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Buffett’s childhood ventures into finance, which included forays to the racetrack and his father’s brokerage firm, offer an opportunity to see finance from a bright child’s eyes, then from a brilliant young man’s—Buffett’s time at Columbia with Benjamin Graham, his forays into Wall Street, and his eventual migration away from that “abhorrent culture”—then from an ever-maturing tycoon’s perspective. The aggregate result is a pleasing and insightful storyline of the discipline (finance) through the man (Buffett).

Snowball’s glimpses into the world of financial moving and shaking offer pleasing insights for anyone interested in finance in general. Schroeder weaves in an array of classic quotes, including:

Debt is no good
Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful
Uncertainty is a friend of the buyer of long-term values
You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus

In addition, Schroeder’s coverage of certain significant events in American financial history offer pleasing insights to students of the overall discipline. Her play-by-play of the 1991-92 Solomon Brothers Crisis especially stands out.

The Man

Warren Buffett is brilliant, passionate, hardworking, persistent, and notoriously absorbed in his craft. Was he always like that? Snowball, in a word, says yes. But Buffett wasn’t only born, he was also made, shaped by a dysfunctional mother and regimented, idealistic father, a childhood exposed to politics, markets, and voluntary parsimony, and a natural shyness that drew him not towards people, but numbers, order, and control.

Schroeder explores Buffett’s key character traits while respectfully highlighting his paradoxes as well. Buffett’s investment style is coldly rational, but Buffett the teacher is folksy and accessible. He won’t eat anything “a three-year-old doesn’t eat,” but doesn’t hesitate to feast at elite socialite dinners. The man’s complexity ensures that readers can recognize, but not pigeonhole him. The truth is that all of his characteristics, no matter how much at odds they are with one another, are the real Warren Buffett.

Insight into America

Another facet adding value to the book is its coverage of modern American financial history. From the Depression to World War II to Vietnam to the shaky post-9/11 decade, Snowball touches upon eras in intermediate but informative depth. This makes it accessible to readers of all generations.

The book offers pleasing insights related to America’s business elite. Warren Buffett, over the course of his life, was either intimately or remotely connected to a number of business tycoons, including the Annenberg family, furniture dynamo Rose Blumkin, Washington Post chief Kay Graham, and Bill Gates and his family. Snowball maintains focus on its subject while looping in fascinating details about family members, friends, and peripheral characters.

Read It!

Even if you’re not a Buffett connoisseur or even fan, Snowball is the tome to pick up for 2008. No business book has been more far-reaching, revealing, and comprehensive. This thick, entertaining masterpiece will doubtless add value to your memory banks.