Even after a decade as a financial journalist, I understand the urge to retreat from conversations about finance and economics. Money itself is incredibly boring; talking to enough horny young men in Manhattan bars to get some evidence.
But: no one can withdraw money! And the best writers know that money is one of the most powerful incentives in the world, an engine of motivation and intrigue, as well as reason and structure. It’s what you do to make money, and what you do with money when you have it; the electricity of winning it, the desperation of losing it, the consequences, that’s where things get interesting, dramatic.
Because of its universality and power, I could tell you that IN REALITY, all of the books are about economics. Sally Rooney’s work is an exploration of socialist ideology crossed with reality; My year of rest and relaxation concerns the invisible structural support of trust funds.
My book, The king of bonds, talks openly about finance: it’s about the bond market and the man who helped create it, the company he co-founded and from which he was eventually fired. And that explains what really happened during the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, and what we are left with. It is also a question of insecurity and aging, of power and glory. Basically, it’s a book about people grappling with their own merits, their fallibility and mortality, the limits of their power. People always say that the best stories in finance are about people, but of course what else would they be about?
I know this topic is not necessarily the starting point for so many readers, even those who might be a little curious about finance. So today I bring you some gateway books. Books that either have a secret, built-in history or economic structure, or are rooted squarely in the world of money but are as fun and well-written as must-read fiction.
Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker
This one is a gimme, but if you haven’t yet read the book that started it all – everything being the transcendental career of Michael Lewis – you really should. Somewhat coincidentally, Lewis’ first job out of college was with Salomon Brothers, one of the most reputable investment firms, in the frenzied 1980s, especially bananas. Solomon no longer exists, for reasons that become apparent in the book. But it still casts a very long shadow over the financial industry (and indeed in my own book). And is apparently recommended as a finance training textbook today, which is baffling.
Writers trying to sell a non-fiction story about business or finance are warned against saying in pitch meetings with editors that they are the next Michael Lewis, because it’s humiliating: everyone has already said it, and no, you are certainly not. No one is!
Lewis just released the audiobook version at Pushkin, with additional production and bonus content.
Ling Ma, Breakup
Both a delightful read and the perfect primer on the interconnectedness of our global supply chain, but with zombies. (If you think you can’t tolerate a pandemic book, I’ll note that Ma’s pandemic is worse than ours, which I find comforting!)
Isabelle Wilkerson, The warmth of other sons
Isabel Wilkerson’s historical study of the Great Migration is perhaps the book on this list with the most obvious “eco book for the non-eco” credit, but its laurels are well deserved. This is an unquestionably brilliant and deeply researched book on one of the greatest economic stories in modern history.
Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Dirty Rich in Rising Asia
This recommendation was technically borrowed from my former colleague Jacob Goldstein. There is one section in particular where the Nameless Protagonist takes a bus to the Big Nameless City which perfectly encapsulates the process of modern economic development.
Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success
Gary Shteyngart studied the world of hedge funds for years to write this book. He took her out afterwards. His research and dedication to verisimilitude makes this plot unrealistic (for example: I have known many hedge fund managers, their funds in many different states of ancestry or disarray, and I have never known one alone to take a multi-hour Greyhound for some reason) feel believable, from the insecurities of the protagonist hedge fund manager to the hustle and bustle of his fee structures.
Raven Leilani, Chandelier
At first, it seems like a nice tale of freewheeling 20s New York dating, but the story quickly becomes complicated and turns in on itself into a tale of precariousness and “gaping economic disparity,” generosity unequal labor market, cruelty and absurdity (please see: the interview in a clown academy), class and race and the deals that money makes us make with ourselves and those around us. An Edith Wharton for our time.
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Emily St. John Mandel, The glass hotel
Honestly, it can be difficult to write about Ponzi schemes OR the financial crisis without being totally clunky, without falling into cliches, outlines and errors. But that’s not a concern for Emily St. Mandel. As a bonus, this beautiful, sweeping novel about the ripple effects of two things intersects seductively with the world of Station Eleven.
Fred Schwed, Where are the client’s yachts?
Where are the client’s yachts? A proto-Michael Lewis (in fact, he wrote the foreword to the 1995 edition.) This is an enduring and hilarious classic about the inherent contradictions of Wall Street, literally from 1940. The author , Fred Schwed Jr., worked on Wall Street in the 1920s, and says his book is a “brave effort” to “describe the people and operations of Wall Street as they really are.” In my mind, it’s a ride with Fred, gliding around pre- and post-1929 crash buildings, stopping to admire each of the various actors and gleefully detailing their uselessness.
The title is the punchline of an apocryphal story “in dear dead days beyond memory”, in which a visitor admires the yachts of bankers and brokers off the southern tip of Manhattan and asks this question. The joke, of course, is that customers can’t afford yachts. So weird that this book is over 80 years old and yet so relevant!
Relevant titles on my TBR stack: by Guy Lawson OctopusDan Davies’ lie for moneyColson Whitehead Harlem mixand Ken Auletta Greed and Glory on Wall Street.
Mary Child’s The king of bonds is available now through Flatiron Books.