Book of the week: Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal by Matthew Hart

Matthew Hart’s “compelling, stylish, and impressively researched” primer chronicles humanity’s centuries-long love affair with gold.

(Simon and Schuster, $26)

Matthew Hart’s “compelling, stylish, and impressively researched” primer on humanity’s centuries-long love affair with gold opens with a vision of hell, said Eugenia Williamson in The Boston Globe. South Africa’s Mponeng mine is the deepest man-made hole in the world, penetrating so far into the earth’s crust that the heat of the molten rock below pushes the temperature of some tunnel walls to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Some 4,000 people labor in the darkness of the vast mine, and because untold numbers of thieves live in the tunnels and smuggle out some $1 billion in stolen gold each year, underground shoot-outs with the mine’s police erupt regularly. But here’s the surprise: Compared with the other hideous consequences that Hart traces back to man’s lust for gold, the scene at Mponeng turns out to be “not even especially outlandish.”

Any investor who considers gold a safe haven surely should think again, said Wendy Smith in Hart eventually details how volatile the gold market can be, but he first provides a “lightning-fast” historical survey to explain how this pretty but not especially useful metal acquired such sway. Gold coins first appeared in the 7th century B.C., but the crucial entwining of gold and money only occurred after Spain’s plunder of the Incan and Aztec empires. Hart’s main story actually begins in 1971, when President Richard Nixon severed the direct link between gold and the value of the U.S. dollar, unleashing rampant speculation. Gold’s price jumped from $35 an ounce to $825 in less than a decade, prompting a worldwide surge in production—as well as wars and environmental degradation.

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Hart at one point suggests, “not entirely convincingly,” that humanity’s appetite for gold might be wired into our DNA, said Margaret Quamme in the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. That overreach aside, he proves an excellent guide—“equally at ease reporting on the intricacies of financial markets” as he is making vivid the battles between rural miners in today’s China. The most striking part of his tale might be his explanation of how new investment vehicles created a decade ago sent gold prices soaring to unimaginable heights, said Katherine A. Powers in Hart’s account makes clear that only market insiders will ultimately be made rich by that development. The writing throughout has a “high-spirited grace,” but the story Hart traces feels like a vast tragedy.

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