Two books about Italy and Italians

I’ve just finished two books with an Italian theme, so I thought I’d review them here for anyone who might be interested:

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the FutureGood Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future by Bill Emmott

This book is a primer on Italy’s current government and economic woes by a former editor of The Economist. I picked it up because I wanted to understand my adopted country better.  And given Italy’s status in the news lately, I thought it was important to do so.

It’s easy to read and understand, and it’s seemingly even-handed, though I admit to being a novice in the subject. One of the big take-home points is that self-protection and heavy regulations prevent Italian businesses from being able to grow to world-leader status, despite Italy’s obvious talents in food, design and engineering. I nodded heartily when Emmott mentioned that bureaucracy makes immigration so discouraging that many foreign firms don’t even bother sending people here.  I also nodded when he said that lack of international outlook and merit-orientation stunts Italian universities’ competitiveness, especially in R & D.  Bob works a lot with university patent developments, so he sees this first hand.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I was disappointed in some the examples Emmott gave towards the end of  successful large businesses: Autogrill, who brings us airport catering and the Italian equivalent of quick-stop highway food; and Winx, a cartoon subsidiary of Rainbow promoting scantily clad and not-so-imaginatively-drawn fairies to young girls. (They claim to be morally good, but that’s quite a mixed message.) Rainbow may disapprove of how Berlusconi’s Mediaset precludes television competition in Italy, but I can’t help but think that the Winx would be welcome at Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties. I guess Emmott just had to use the most economically robust examples he could find, but it makes me ask myself–are these the Italian products most worth growing into internationally successful businesses? I think there must be better ones!

Overall, though, the book is addressing a more important issue than business success alone: Will Italians look beyond protecting their own private interests long enough to do the long and painful work of cleaning out corruption and building an effective government? Will the innovative, courageous, and idealistic impulses of Italians win the day and reverse current ills? No one knows, but as someone who lives in Italy and shares in its success or failure, I sure hope so.

The second book is much more lighthearted!

Un Italiano in AmericaUn Italiano in America by Beppe Severgnini

This is the first adult-level book I’ve ever completed in Italian, so I’m sure I missed some of the subtleties and the humor, but I chose to read it because 1) an Italian friend gave it to me and 2) because I’ve just completed the inverse of Severgnini’s premise: my first year as an American in Italy.

The book is light and episodic. Italians will find it funny that Americans keep their buildings as cold as a refrigerator in the summer, and that Italians like to complain about it. Severgnini is fascinated with shopping in large grocery stores, American familiarity in manners, e-mail, and of course, fast food. He laughs at the excesses of “political correctness,” circa 1994. He thinks that his Italian name is too difficult for American marketers to spell, not realizing that they can’t spell Anglophone names either. And I smiled when I got to the part in which Severgnini took friends to a 4th of July celebration in Washington DC–complete with a well-planned meal, a wicker basket, and summer white linen outfits–and wondered by they were getting stared at. It’s at moments like this that his Italian charm comes out the most.

But a lot of what Severgnini recounts in this book is peculiar to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in 1994, where and when he was a foreign correspondent. It often reads more like blog posts for the crowd back home than like a true probing of the American spirit. The chapters are vignettes, now dated. Towards the end, he does try for a few pages to seriously assess what Americans are like, he comes up with five English words: Control, Comfort, Competition, Community & Choreography.

Okay. But more telling, to me, was a quote near the beginning of the book:

Per gli italiani che arrivano negli Stati Uniti, la soddisfazione non e’ vedere un film sei mesi prima che arrivi in Italia, scegliere fra cinquanta marche di corn-flakes e leggere due chili di giornale la domenica mattina. Cio’ che ci rende felici e’ combattere con la burocrazia americana. It motivo? Allenati a trattare con quella italiana, ci sentiamo come un torero che deve affrontare una mucca. Una faccenda deliziosamente rilassante.

My rough translation, since I don’t have the English version:

For Italians who arrive in the United States, the greatest satisfaction doesn’t come from seeing a film six months before it arrives in Italy, choosing from among fifty types of Corn-Flakes, and reading a two-kilos worth of newspapers on Sunday mornings. What makes us happy is combatting American bureaucracy. Why? Because, being used to the Italian kind, we feel like a bullfighter facing a milk cow. It’s a deliciously relaxing undertaking.

I hear you, Beppe.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to take Torino (which means little bull) by the horns. But for now, if wanting to fathom the basics of life in Italy makes me an American control freak, so be it. I’ll give you all the movies, Corn-Flakes, and newspapers you want in exchange–and the thermostat, too.


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