I'm a reformed literary fiction addict. It’s the perfect release for an introverted person. Today I was thinking about some of my favorite books and the role that money plays in them. Sometimes it’s a main character, shaping every action and decision. Sometimes it’s merely a backdrop on which to paint the true main characters.
This is not to suggest that I love money: I don’t. My relationship with it is dysfunctional at best. But it is the currency of life. Without it, we, and other fictional characters like ourselves, can do nothing. Stories would be boring if the characters could not afford to eat a sandwich while discussing the vagaries of life, or share a beer, or worry about where the next meal is going to come from.
Usually people look for books about money in the nonfiction section, but some of the most compelling lessons I've learned about money come from showing where it fits into the worldviews of various authors.
Here are some of my favorite books that involve money:
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
On the Road ruined my life, which is to say it is one of my favorites. I read this in college, somewhere near the end of that journey. The book is ostensibly about “the road,” traveling, and living a subsistence lifestyle in the 1940s and 50s in America. It is a postwar time and everyone is buzzing with either ambition or substances.
The book is largely autobiographical; characters are down-and-out “beats,” poets and writers who live debaucherous lives. They perform a days’ work in order to get a meal and a few bottles of wine to get through the night. Once they have enough in their pocket to get to the next town, off they go, in the backs of pickup trucks or traincars, hitchiking across the new world of interstate highways.
Money in Kerouac’s world is almost communal. People live together in flophouses and whomever has it together the most that day will get everyone some food, and more importantly, some booze. The characters will lie, cheat and steal to get by, and getting by means not having to get a real job. The misery of poverty fuels the art.
Money Lesson: Money and work can be used just to get by, so long as you are fine with sleeping on other people’s floor and couches.
Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
You may know Bret Easton Ellis as the man who wrote American Psycho. If you haven’t read the book, maybe you saw the gratuitously violent film starring Christian Bale. Less than Zero was his first published work, released when he was 21 and still in college. This book is haunting, and something I wish I could have created at 21.
The story follows a young rich college kid, Clay, who returns home to LA from an expensive private college in the Northeast. Clay tries to reconcile his life against the vapidness of LA society, where the kids of rich Hollywood moguls engage in lewd, self-destructive behaviors that are shocking, to say the least. He becomes disillusioned with the lifestyle that unfolds from a lack of parental supervision from people who themselves are sociopaths, combined with an infinite stream of money and lines of credit at the finest stores and hotspots.
Money Lesson: When you give kids everything they want without having to work with it, they are able to build a cruel and sadistic world that tries to define life when it has already been defined for them by a magazine.
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
Named after the Dominican tradition of publicly burning luxury items like art, books and cosmetics, the Bonfire of the Vanities revolves around the 1% of New York City in the 1980s, and the greed, politics, racism and class warfare of the times. I wouldn’t say this is one of my favorite books, but it is one of my favorite books about money.
This book showcased the excesses of the newly resurgent Wall Street rich, including the main character, who is investigated for running over a poor, black teen who he thinks is going to rob him. It is a peek into a Park Avenue lifestyle, a place where I will likely never step foot into, even as a guest.
Money Lesson: No matter how much money you have, it is generally not enough to shield you from the tragedies of being human. Having a lot of it will buy you a nice attorney, and usually your own tailor-made justice.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
I can see you rolling your eyes (and I can’t blame you), but Atlas Shrugged is built entirely around the idea of money and self-worth, and is a fictional way for Ayn Rand to lay out her philosophy of Objectivism in full detail. I also read this at the end of college as I transitioned into adulthood. Mainly I wanted to see if I could read the largest book I’d ever seen.
To summarize the plot for those of you who lack the patience to read an overwrought 1200-page philosophical screed: the people who run America, the titans of industry, science and innovation, tired of government policies of overregulation and wealth redistribution, go on strike by dropping out of society and going into hiding.
This book is a revenge fantasy of many in today’s neoconservative moment, many of whose adherents revere Ayn Rand as their philosophical leader, that ungrateful Americans be punished by having the rich stop providing for us.
The wealthy in Rand’s world care less for money than they do for power and recognition, and the ego boost that comes with it. Socialism and the mutual benefit of collectivism is savaged as a lazy person’s way to freeload off the work of others. In Rand’s world, everything would be better if everyone simply looked after themselves.
Money Lesson: Those who have a lot of money have an entire philosophy to justify greed and selfishness, and a lot of what they say makes sense. Much of it is too idealistic for actual use, however, which creates our modern problem. Government can not do anything efficiently, and the private sector cannot do anything ethically, so they are forever trapped in an endless marriage of mutual inconvenience.
A Different World
Most of what I have learned about money from these works of fiction involves being placed into a world in which I’m not familiar. I’ve never bummed around the country living off handouts and a hard days’ work like Jack Kerouac. I’ve never lived a life of apathy due to having too much money like Clay in Easton Ellis’ world of LA. I’ve never had so much money and so much disdain for those who don’t aspire to have it that I’ve created an entire philosophy around it.
I prefer to let others create these worlds, and to learn what I can from them.