How did Warren Buffett become one of the world’s richest men? A simple question, yet I doubt most investors could provide anything more than a vague response. Perhaps they would prattle on a bit about value investing and Ben Graham, but what does that tell us about what he actually did? Where did he start? Who is Warren Buffett, really? If you want to know the answers, then look no further than The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. Author Alice Schroeder chronicles Buffett’s life in rich, excruciating detail, and her imaginative writing style is vivid enough to make the reader feel like a fly on the wall during the most important events in Buffett’s life.

For starters, “The Snowball” explores the inner workings of Buffett’s business deals and investing methods. Many people are familiar with Buffett’s purchase of Coca-Cola shares and his bailout of Wall Street banks during the late 2000s recession, but how many of them know about his lucrative maneuvers at Sanborn Maps in 1958? Readers who want examples of Buffett’s early, lesser known investing victories will find a lot to chew on in this book. From his childhood pinball machine venture to See’s Candy, a tiny investing partnership to a conglomerate worth hundreds of billions – Schroeder covers it all and more. As a former investment analyst herself, Schroeder thoroughly understands the business side of Buffett’s life. The chapters on Buffett’s many deals shed a lot of light on his value investing and management strategies, occasionally exposing the sordid details that the Oracle doesn’t usually mention in his interviews.

Others who want to know what makes the man tick will get to know the investing legend in a very intimate way. His personal life is laid bare for all to see, and Schroeder is frank, even brutal, in her description of the real Buffett. Although Buffett’s public persona is that of a folksy and honest businessman, these are only a few aspects of a much more complicated man. The journey to the very pinnacle of power and success didn’t come without a lot of sacrifice, some of it a bit distasteful. As Schroeder tells it, Buffett’s wife often felt dissatisfied in her marriage to a man often too absorbed in building his fortune to pay her much attention, and his children regret that they didn’t really know for much of their formative years.

It is easy to see why the American public is enamored of Buffett. Who wouldn’t be charmed by a quick-witted old man who drinks Coke, lives a modest lifestyle, and happens to be a billionaire? But make no mistake—Buffett is one of the shrewdest and most calculating businessmen who ever lived. He is, I think, a rare example of true genius, and most investors probably should not try to emulate his success. Buffett’s obsession, raw intellectual power, and a healthy dose of luck (his father was a well-connected businessman and politician) made it possible for this mission to come to fruition.
It is perhaps because of the book’s honesty that Buffett and Schroeder’s once close relationship reportedly suffered after its publication. While Buffett has never denied that any of what is written here is untrue, he didn’t receive the telling of his life with much enthusiasm. Despite his cheerful demeanor and immense wealth, Buffett has endured his share of personal tragedy and professional setbacks. The scandal at Salomon Brothers nearly ruined his business reputation, and the illness and death of his beloved wife left him mired in a severe depression. Reliving those painful memories and having them out in public could not have been pleasant to stomach. For the public, though, this book is a rare, unvarnished insight into the mind of one of this century’s greatest business thinkers. Clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, the book is a literary tour de force of Buffett’s immensely interesting life. Schroeder’s writing, at various times, made me laugh out loud, think, and cry, and I highly recommend her to you.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5