Going Public: My Adventures Inside the SEC and How to Prevent the Next Devastating Crisis by Norm Champ, McGraw Hill, 2017.

Norm Champ’s remarkable new book Going Public: My Adventures Inside the SEC and How to Prevent the Next Devastating Crisis, succeeds in being both entertaining and instructing — and it succeeds in spite of several sizable obstacles. The first and largest of these obstacles is also the most obvious: the Securities and Exchange Commission isn’t exactly on par with the Yellowstone super-volcano or the life and loves of Tom Brady when it comes to an evocative subject.

The SEC is government agency tasked with a variety of regulatory responsibilities over the sprawling landscape of the nation’s financial institutions — a securities-law watchdog, a banking regulator, and, most notoriously, the enforcer of rules and regulations over the stock market. All these things involve a great many lawyers (although never nearly as many as the rapacious entities allegedly being policed), whole platoons of actuaries, and enough memoranda to sink a battleship. Not exactly the makings of a Verdi opera.

The next biggest obstacle any book about the SEC has to overcome is very nearly as big: not only some of the worst scandals but also the most catastrophic financial crisis since the Great Depression happened right under the SEC’s nose. The market meltdown in 2008 was precisely the kind of thing the agency was created to prevent, and yet the SEC seemed conspicuously impotent from start to finish. A memoir about working in the SEC could be on par with a memoir about being a safety inspector on the Titanic.

But Mr. Champ is a true believer, and that not only shines through on every page of Going Public but also somehow saves the book from its own subject. Mr. Champ left a successful career in the financial sector in order to take up the post of director of investment management at the SEC in the aftermath of scandals by major swindlers like Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford, and the epic market meltdown of 2008. Mr. Champ encountered an agency absolutely swamped in bureaucracy and back-biting, a place demoralized right down to its dimly-lit interiors and drab furniture.

The demoralization had come at enormous cost. In the run-up to the 2008 meltdown, credit rating agencies had been doling out their highest quality-ratings to collateralize mortgage bundles that were essentially full of hyper-leveraged junk. A triple-A rating was intended to signal that an investment object was rock-solid, but as Mr. Champ puts it, the value of these bundles “depended upon an overheated housing sector fueled by skyrocketing house prices.”

In retrospect it’s clear that there were plenty of warning signs — and plenty of actual, explicit warnings — that this bubble might burst, and that if it burst it would take most of the world’s economy with it. And yet the SEC, the very agency whose job it was to heed those warnings, was so mired in departmental in-fighting and excuse-making that it failed to do its job. This should make depressing reading, and yet Mr. Champ somehow turns it into a fascinating narrative.

It helps that he unapologetically wears his heart on his sleeve. This is a very emotional narrative of Mr. Champ’s tenure at the SEC. He attends meetings with his heart racing; he contemplates his duty with tears in his eyes; he strives to do the right thing out of a sense of public service rather than self-interest. And he has a fair knack for dramatizing the interpersonal tensions of the agency and its many enemies — enemies who start making themselves known in Mr. Champ’s first weeks on the job, enemies who have every reason to scare off a new hire intent on reform.

Through the efforts of Mr. Champ and his bosses and colleagues, those reforms start happening, and the SEC begins closing the “credibility gap” that had widened between the SEC, the media, and the federal government as a result of the agency’s drastic mishandling of, among other things, the country’s $3 trillion dollar money market mutual fund industry.

“While those of us at the SEC had to live with the grim reputation of 2008 stamped on the agency in the minds of many, by 2014 I was giving speeches with a lot of good news,” Mr. Champ writes. “We had broomed out a lot of the bureaucratic cobwebs, put people in better jobs, got closer to industry trends, fixed the worst of the tech problems, and start turning paper files into searchable data.”

Even so, our author is only human. He does the best job he can at explaining and demystifying the world of high corporate finance, but even so, readers should be prepared for some dry patches. Likewise, there are confusing concepts, but this is hardly Mr. Champ’s fault. His account is far from the only one to give the inadvertent impression that Wall Street is often just making stuff up.

In fact, the book’s most bracing section, its conclusion, is aimed squarely at that atmosphere of byzantine practices and the inevitable corruption they spawn. Mr. Champ rounds out his book with a series of proscriptions designed to increase both transparency and accountability. Some of these steps appear on the surface to be overly sweeping, but it would be unwise to dismiss any of them. Mr. Champ has journeyed deep inside the system and has somehow managed to come out again with both his integrity unscuffed and his eyesight unblinkered. Such guides are rare. Going Public should be required reading not only for everybody who works at the SEC but for everybody who depends on it to do its job — which is all of us.