In honour of World Book Day, why not take a moment to contemplate this selection of iconic books concerning the creation, pursuit and nature of money – along with the economic and philosophical ideas that make it all possible.
The Wealth of Nations (1776)
Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith’s weighty tome is frequently truncated from its full title: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. At the vanguard of modern economics, it was written as the Industrial Revolution began and was one of the first works to contemplate how countries accrue capital through the division of labour and free markets. Smith also coined the term ‘invisible hand’ in relation to markets, referring to how groups of individuals acting in their own self-interest can be a force for social good. Of course, the opposite can be argued just as powerfully…
The Father Christmas of communism outlines his ideology in a book subtitled Critique of Political Economy. Setting himself up in direct opposition to thinkers like Adam Smith, Marx argued that the economic patterns underlying the capitalist mode of production were rigged to benefit a small elite. The only ‘invisible hand’ Marx saw was engaged in the exploitation of labour, through which owners of the means of production could profit by paying their employees less than the value of goods they produce. Down with capitalism!
Atlas Shrugged (1957)
Another long, meaty read – this time fictional – Rand imagines a dystopian future in which the world’s foremost creative and industrial minds go on strike against the welfare state and hide in some mountains. Advocating her largely-ridiculed philosophy of Objectivism – essentially that people should be motivated by “rational selfishness” – Atlas Shrugged is very much the Marmite of economic/philosophical tomes, seen either as a papery life coach or a litmus test of psychopathy, depending on your political outlook.
The book that put Martin Amis on the literary map – and set him apart from his successful novelist father Kingsley Amis – is a lurid account of the gluttony, excess and cultural vacuity of both the advertising world and film industry of the 1980s. John Self is a slob, though an eloquent one, who has made a fair whack directing adverts. He embarks on his first feature film – initially titled Good Money and then renamed Bad Money – but drugs, prostitutes and pornography get in his way. Money is an informative fable on how not to spend (read: throw away) your money. Be sensible people and don’t spend all your dosh on wild nights out; top up your ISA and double your mortgage repayments instead.
American Psycho (1991)
Bret Easton Ellis
Ellis’ iconic serial killer Patrick Bateman stalks the luxurious yet interchangeable clubs and eateries of upscale Manhattan, ostensibly driven mad by the mundanity of his job as an investment banker and the abstract pursuit of status. As Bateman’s murders become increasingly haphazard and ludicrously violent, we are invited to draw parallels between the workaday ruthlessness of the corporate world and the happy nonchalance with which he sadistically tortures his victims. Is it all in his mind? Is it real? Who knows, but the bit about business cards is funny. A favourite of edgy students everywhere.
The Ascent of Money (2008)
Published in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Ferguson traces the evolution of banking, credit and boom and bust economics back to their very beginnings. Essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in economics or history, The Ascent of Money whisks the reader through Babylonian clay tablets, the first money lenders and the bond market of Renaissance Italy, all the way through to the globalisation of the Western economy. At the risk of committing a World Book Day act of sacrilege, it is also available as a TV series.