If he didn’t work at The Economist, Kluth would still be precisely the type of cosmopolitan his magazine would want as a reader. Born in New York, he grew up in Germany, studied at Williams and the London School of Economics, and met his Taiwanese-American wife while working in Hong Kong. At home in Santa Monica, he and his wife speak to their three young children in English, German, and Mandarin. God knows how they’ll get by without Spanish.
Kluth left a job in banking to join the magazine in 1997. He paid his dues in London before heading out to Hong Kong and then San Francisco, where he covered techland (a realm especially “fawning”—Kluth’s word—toward the weekly). He has been in L.A. since 2009 but is quick to admit that with three young children he hasn’t been able to experience the city the way he got to know other cities, which is to say at 3 a.m. His L.A. pet peeve is the texting-while-driving epidemic, “because it screams ‘I am more important than you.’” Among his favorite gems: Will Rogers State Historic Park and the bustling “ethnoburbs,” the antithesis of the sleepy Munich suburb he grew up in. (But I perk up when he mentions that a neighbor was German soccer legend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge).
Kluth jokes that the magazine’s “one for all, all for one” culture has an unexpected flip side: it drives his colleagues to write ever quirkier books to reassert their own identities. I’m reminded that one of my favorite books is a brilliant speculative biography of Pontius Pilate by Economist editor Ann Wroe.
Kluth has just published a genre-bending book of his own. It’s called Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure. Don’t be fooled by the tidy subtitle, a merciful nod to booksellers in need of guidance on which shelf should hold the book. It’s not some pat motivational pamphlet to be placed near the checkout line. It’s a compelling blend of memoir and history, aspirational literature and psychological profile.
In case you need reminding, Hannibal crossed the Alps to sack Rome through the back door. With elephants! When he was 29! I admit to Kluth that all I remember about Hannibal was that he came from Carthage and crossed the Alps with elephants; I never knew the part about his being 29. But that’s one reason Kluth was drawn to his subject: almost no one knows much about him. Or about what happened next: Hannibal flailed about Italy for years, never quite exploiting his victory to the fullest. “He confused tactics with strategy,” Kluth explains.
Kluth is not so much obsessed by military strategy as he is by what he calls people’s “life trajectories.” The book opens with a poignant—hilarious or discomforting, depending on whether you like your job—account of how stumbling upon a Hannibal documentary on TV made Kluth reassess the meaning of success. He was “thriving” at a London investment bank, and then he decided to make a leap to journalism.
Of course, bookstores are crammed full of tracts on how to succeed in life and (sign of the times?) how to embrace, and learn, from failure. Hannibal and Me is all about the difficulty of telling one from the other. There is plenty of Hannibal in Kluth’s tale, and it is a rollicking story, but the real inspirations for the book are Rudyard Kipling and Ludwig Erhard.
Kluth’s favorite poem, Kipling’s “If,” contains the lines that underlie the book’s quest:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same …
Ludwig Erhard was West Germany’s first postwar economics minister, acclaimed father of the Deutsche Mark, who later became chancellor. But to Kluth, Erhard was “Uncle Lulu,” the great-uncle who raised his dad. Erhard, unlike Hannibal, achieved success later in life, as a middle-aged man trying to build a redemptive society on the ruins of The Third Reich.
Hannibal and Me compares the life trajectories of “early peakers” such as Hannibal, Picasso, and Meriwether Lewis with the steadier, more gradual ascent of “wanderers” like Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Cézanne, and Uncle Lulu, with an eye towards seeing how people “self-actualize.” What’s key for Kluth is whether people are able to “transcend success and failure.”
Kluth’s approach, like that of his employer, is refreshingly retro. “For centuries, from the days of Plutarch on, people read about the lives of great individuals, believing that the life trajectories of Great Men could teach them something about their own lives, but we stopped doing so in this last generation,” he says. And that’s a bad thing: sometimes you need a Hannibal to tell you to bail on investment banking.