If you’re reading this, chances are very good you’re part of an immensely privileged slice of humanity with access to what’s known as “leisure time.” Chances are also pretty good that you’re the type of psycho who wants to spend it as productively as possible. High up on my personal list of “Type A Maniac Life Hacks” is indulging in a great and entertaining book that also happens to teach me something.
So here, with the holidays upon us, is a “To-Do List of Educational Pleasure” for anyone who’s curious about money and finance in all their surreal complexity. Some of these books are big L Literature, and others are finely crafted entertainments. Several of them are both. And they’re all about that mystical institution, the thing everyone needs: lucre, beans, cheddar, lettuce, money.
This isn’t meant to be a definitive list – just 10 fantastic books in no particular order. There’s no time like the present.
“Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” – Herman Melville (1850)
Sometimes described as the first existentialist novel (really a novelette), this manifesto of refusal is appropriately set in New York’s financial district circa 1850. Bartleby, for a time a hardworking clerk in a Wall Street law firm, suddenly begins to refuse all work, and indeed all activity, for no discernible reason. Despite the genuine concern of his employer, and against all apparent logic, Bartleby sticks to this principle until he dies of starvation in a debtor’s prison.
Bartleby’s vexatious behavior is never explained, making him a semi-mystical avatar for refuseniks everywhere. More specifically, some think “Scrivener” reflects Herman Melville’s deep rage at finance and the market. Now recognized as one of the greatest American novelists, the “Moby Dick” author found little success in his lifetime. He stopped writing fiction soon after “Bartleby.” His final novel, “The Confidence Man,” was also focused on finance.
“Bright Orange for the Shroud” – John D. McDonald (1965)
John D. McDonald is considered perhaps the greatest thriller writer of the 20th century. He penned the source material for Robert Mitchum and Robert DeNiro’s respective terrifying versions of “Cape Fear,” and no less a titan than Kurt Vonnegut described his work as “a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.” In this novel, hardboiled hero Travis McGee is trying to recover a friend’s money lost in a land development scam. It’s a sterling slice of cynical brutality, replete with backwoods hillbillies, crooked lawyers, savage beatings, suicides and just desserts. McDonald explored financial scams again a half-century later in “Condominium” (2014), about Florida real estate.
“The Bonfire of the Vanities” – Tom Wolfe (1987) and “The Way We Live Now” – Anthony Trollope (1875)
Written and published nearly a century apart, these two novels are a matched set satirizing the excesses of wealth – and, particularly, of wealth gained through speculation. Anthony Trollope’s work, inspired by London’s Panic of 1873, centers on a financier running a railroad stock pump-and-dump that’s so successful he makes it into Parliament before things fall apart. “There seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable,” Trollope said of his motivation for the prescient work.
Prescient because, of course, the same thing was still happening a century later. Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire” chronicles the rise and fall of a bond trader named Sherman McCoy. McCoy’s extravagant lifestyle makes him seem like the resident of a different universe until a single wrong turn puts him at the center of a web of intrigue, and ultimately brings him down. It is widely considered the seminal novel of the 1980s because it shows Wall Street graft, not in the form of a simple con, but as an entire legalized racket enmeshed in racism and class privilege.
“Cotton Comes to Harlem” – Chester Himes (1965)
This hard-boiled detective classic starts with a classic web of swindles: the hijacking of a community fund that may have been a scam to begin with. Published in 1965, “Cotton” featured two of the first Black detectives in popular fiction in the personages of “Grave Digger” Jones and “Coffin” Ed Johnson. But as you might guess, these aren’t the smooth investigators of Homicide or The Wire: Grave Digger and Coffin Ed pummel the bejeezus out of pretty much everyone who looks at them sideways. Its focus on grit and action is probably why this (also frequently hilarious) little book was turned into one of the first “blaxploitation” films in 1970, directed by Ossie Davis and co-starring Redd Foxx.
“High Rise” – J.G. Ballard (1975) and “Cosmopolis” – Don DeLillo (2003)
Another matched pair, “High Rise” and “Cosmopolis” offer parallel visions of the alienation that lurks at the top of the capitalist pyramid. In “High Rise,” British novelist J.G. Ballard captures the strange world of a self-contained, high-tech condominium and its inhabitants. Touted for its fantastic innovations and amenities, and its total insulation from the real world around it, the building descends into strange, primitive barbarism when a literal upstairs-downstairs class struggle disrupts its sheen of perfection.
Don DeLillo’s work shows a similar alienation in the figure of billionaire financier Eric Packer. Packer climbs into his limousine one day to go get a haircut, only to be treated to a street-level view of a political protest boiling across Manhattan. Over the course of a single improbably eventful day in which he does not leave the limousine, Packer witnesses a total upheaval of society – a breakdown that takes his Wall Street bags with it.
“JR” – William Gaddis (1975)
Though it’s a notoriously tough read thanks to William Gaddis’ experimental style, this National Book Award Winner is at heart a hilariously over-the-top satire. The titular JR is an 11-year-old boy who conceals his identity and launches a career as a penny-stock trader, soon becoming a paper millionaire. Today, a kid like JR would probably be praised as some sort of holy guru, but Gaddis’ goal was to lampoon the rising obsession with finance and stocks, even among kids who in a healthier society would be out playing in the streets. There has been some speculation that Gaddis’ prepubescent JR was an influence on the character J.R. Ewing, the bullheaded, comically manipulative Texas oilman at the center of the TV series “Dallas,” itself arguably a satire of 1980s excess.
“The Solar Lottery” – Philip K. Dick (1955)
Reflecting Philip K. Dick, often abbreviated PKD’s, visionary (and borderline paranoiac) skepticism of the military and surveillance state, “The Solar Lottery” is set on a strange futuristic planet ruled by the logic of chance and game theory. That includes the use of a lottery in the regular selection of its leaders – and their assigned assassins. Though written in the 1950s, “Solar” contains many of the themes of Dick’s later, more radical work – above all, his firm loyalty to the little guy.
“Animal Money” – Michael Cisco (2015)
A book that’s nearly impossible to summarize or explain, so I’ll just quote “Annihilation” author Jeff VanderMeer’s valiant attempt: “‘Animal Money’ is about five economics professors who come up with the (surreal, radical) idea of animal money after meeting one another at the hotel of a conference they aren’t able to attend because they’ve all suffered coincidental injuries that require each to be heavily bandaged in some way.”
What do these bizarre figures mean by “animal money”? Is it living money made from animals? Is it money to be used by animals? They themselves barely seem to know as the novel winds through bizarre debates and slapstick capers. It’s a solid skewering of both academic pomposity and the menace of modern banking. It’s also a serious, if oblique, engagement with the deep mysteries at the heart of human finance.