Money books to read on holiday
With that in mind, whether you’ll be caravanning in Skegness or more likely to bump into Cameron and co on the slopes, a good book is essential for when the bad weather inevitably traps you inside.
We’ve chosen two fact and two fiction books about money to recommend, and explained why:
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
This book deals with one Emma Bovary, the daughter of a farmer from the French countryside and her descent into the darkest shadows of the human psyche, driven by bone-deep ennui and a sense of injustice at the dull, sedate life that rolls out before her.
When first published 160 years ago this book was met with pure scandal and the writer was brought to trial on charges of obscenity. It’s not had to see why. The background characters are boorish, boastful, full of unearned pride. And Emma commits sins that, while trite at first, quickly escalate to ones we condemn even today.
Ultimately, Emma ends up in financial destitution, brought about by reckless borrowing and a self-destructive attitude that is painful to witness. Unable to play the dutiful wife to a dull country doctor, her search for something – anything – to give her life meaning, to try and force it into living up to the standards of her childhood fantasies, speaks to us in a very modern voice, despite its age.
Flaubert has a reputation for virtuosity, and Madame Bovary is the sharp point of his output. While the background characters sometimes serve only as useful props, Bovary herself is written with a realism that verges on the disturbing. The generosity towards her given by the writer while retaining such cynicism as he does coupled with his unflattering, uncompromising viewpoint is a masterclass in character study, and the descriptions of pastoral French country life and its denizens sneer as much as they rejoice.
Ultimately the novel poses one question, not directly but gently, which flowers out from the story when taken as a whole, retroactively and elegant: do we train ourselves to be happy with what we have or reach for something more; what is it we deserve? It’s a question fraught with danger, and has been with us for a long time – Plato argued for the former in his Republic – and, looking at the debt habits of people today, it remains as vital a question today.
The way we live now – Anthony Trollope
Perhaps nothing summarises Victorian England as effectively as Trollope’s most cynical and scathing of all his works. Amid the Whigs, snobbery, racism, country houses, gentleman’s clubs, aristocracy, powdered servants and a bewildering set of rules regarding what to do with one’s hat, Trollope drives his large-canvass story of shattered dreams through railway speculation, a financial bubble that was as big a blot on Britain’s economy then as the Internet bubble was to the global economy in the 1990s and, more recently, the credit bubble that led to 2008’s Armageddon-courting headlines was.
Among the large cast of characters, personal finance is the chief concern of all but one, who, it could be argued, acts as a stand-in for Trollope himself. (However, nobody can accuse the writer of making himself a paragon of virtue if this is the case.) Debt, mortgages and borrowing are the sinew that ties all these characters’ stories together, snaking across class and education, the great leveller of human civilisation.
It’s a sobering experience to read The Way We Live Now and recognise so much of today. London’s Islington may be described as an out-of-the-way country suburb and the streets may reek of dung (well, some things will always stay the same) and the setting and narrow confines in which even the richest live their lives may be alien to us, but what drives the people who populate this novel isn’t.
The astonishing levels of greed, the wilful ignorance, the infuriating need to keep up with the Joneses all scream across the ages with the clarity of a bell, and at times the situations and utterances described read like something from an modern issue of Private Eye – especially once the story takes us into Westminster.
The Way We Live Now is thick at 800 pages, but it’s pacey. The writing can be unwieldy at times but the control and modulation of the language is never anything less than a pleasure to read. It’s eminently readable, serves up great dollops of drama and paints a picture of London and its timeless characters that is both vivid and thrilling.
Debt: The first 5,000 years – David Graeber
This is a true original. But a few words of warning: it’s controversial stuff.
Like Ronseal, Graeber’s work does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s about credit and debt. But what makes it worth reading is that it’ll turn all you believe about the history of economics and the role of debt on its head with original research and challenges to belief systems that are enshrined in every aspect of modern life – over and over again, every page turning ideas over and examining all their sides to deliver insight and knowledge that are quite fabulous.
Graeber plies his trade as an anthropologist, and his chapters on ancient civilisations and tribes, the economics of slavery and his frequent digressions into history make this clear, telling a story while imparting plenty of information, not just focussed on economics, but encompassing sexuality, religion, filial piety, class… pretty much all the things that motivate humanity. It sounds dry but it’s anything but, taking you on a journey of quite intimidating scope.
This isn’t a left-wing screed or a reactionary treatise aimed at milking the anger people have towards the economic system post 2008. It’s a robust piece of research that does what the very best factual books should do – inform, act as provocateur and most of all, entertain.
The Intelligent Investor – Benjamin Graham
This is the granddaddy of investment books. It was written in the 30s and concerns only American bond and stock markets of the time. There’s no need to highlight just how much has changed since then and how irrelevant its details on, say, specific bond issues are, even in America – but incredibly, it’s still utterly essential reading today.
That’s because, despite it fearlessness over delivering details, this book is primarily about principles, methods and psychology. A word on those details though: don’t head into this thinking it’s a total beginner’s guide – you certainly can read it as a beginner and take a lot away from it, but it doesn’t ease you in and a certain baseline knowledge is assumed.
The Intelligent Investor splits people who buy securities into two – speculators and investors. The book only concerns itself with the latter. It uses practical examples backed with data to demonstrate the folly of most of the market and how to avoid its numerous pitfalls. It teaches you how to be disciplined and considered, what to watch out for and how to temper your expectations.
The subject matter is dry but Graham writes with wit and enjoyable acerbity. While it’s true that a lot of the book is old-fashioned, it’s also true that insight and wisdom flow across its pages like the colours of rock stratification on the Jurassic coast. It would be impossible to read this and not walk away with a clearer, more sober mind.
A note: later editions come with commentary written in modern times. While useful for putting some of the information into historical context, the writing is poor compared to Graham’s. Read just the original chapters your first time through.
- For more holiday reading ideas, try our Top 10 books about money.
You can also read money tips from perhaps the greatest writer of them all in our article Shakespeare muses on money, and in our blog Are Shakespeare's money quotes still relevant today?