Kluth, a staff writer for the Economist magazine, interprets the life trajectories of multiple historical figures, focusing primarily on Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who almost overthrew Rome. Kluth finds parallels between Hannibal's life, the other historical figures' lives, and his own. The "successes" and "failures" of these lives are interpreted to produce meaning. The book derives its power from constantly challenging the reader to find parallels and meaning in her or his own life.
"Hannibal and Me" reads like a Western interpretation of Taoist and (some) Buddhist philosophy. It's no accident that the book's final paragraphs include a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, and talk about equanimity and self-actualization, the abilities of a person to remain level-headed throughout their life, both during the short- and long-term. These final paragraphs sum up Kluth's admiration for those people who can control their emotions, feel satisfied, live in the moment, and be content with their lot. Self-actualization is Kluth's modern interpretation of the Eastern monk's daily routine of meditation, of 'chop wood and carry water.' The whole book is a journey of ideas that culminates in these final paragraphs.
The strength of "Hannibal and Me" lies in its organization. The book is structured to chronologically progress through Hannibal's triumphs and failures, and in the process it references other figures' -- Steve Jobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, the explorer Shackleton, Einstein, the novelist Amy Tan, Kluth's uncle Erhard (a former head of W. Germany), Tiger Woods, Tennessee Williams, and many, many others -- parallel life situations. Kluth even references his own life, which gives the book the flavor of a memoir. Kluth analyzes these lives, based on modern psychological theory anchored by Carl Jung (yet another profile). In the end we're left with, as Aristotle would say, an examined life. The book is worth reading if only to get yourself to perform an examination on your own life.
Woven into this life analysis is a series of philosophical concepts that we need to be aware of in order to achieve equanimity and self-actualization. Some of these "life secrets," so Eastern in flavor, include the distinction between strategy and tactics, how to level emotions, how to use our opponents' aggressiveness against them (and we all have opponents, even if we don't want to admit it), how to balance between general principles and specific situations, plus many, many others, all universal truths that modern living often steals from us as we lead our busy and emotionally filled lives.
Since most people never examine their lives, Kluth likes to label traditional success and failure as impostors. What looks like "success" in the short-term often is just one step on the trajectory toward ultimate failure; what looks like "failure" is often a speed bump on the path to ultimate success. We would not know this about ourselves if we did not put our and other lives into perspective.
The only small improvement I would make to the book is that Kluth often spends a lot of time summarizing history. For someone like me who does not know many historical facts, this was wonderful; but for others some sections may seem tedious. Nevertheless, this book is a fantastic introduction to how to make your life better lived.