Jonathan Swift, “The South Sea Project” (1721)
After the bull market (or “bubble”) in shares of the South Sea Co. burst, Britain’s most caustic poet eviscerated the promoters who lined their own pockets with the investing public’s money. Swift could feel their pain; he had, like most of the British intelligentsia, invested in the mania himself. (In fact, he had even written fawning articles about the South Sea Co. in the popular press, helping — temporarily! — to drive up the value of his own shares.) His bitter words ring as true today as they did nearly 300 years ago.
Honoré de Balzac, Rise and Fall of César Birotteau (Histoire de la Grandeur et de la Décadence de César Birotteau), 1837
Based on the real-estate bubble that swept Paris in 1828, this is the saga of an ordinary owner of a perfume shop who deludes himself into thinking he is a genius at property speculation. A few quick flips of lots around the Madeleine, and César is hooked. Told with the narrative sweep and obsession with detail that are Balzac’s hallmarks, it all ends as badly as the real-estate bubble that burst in the U.S. 179 years later. César should have listened to his wife; Mimi saw it coming as clear as day.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Gambler (1867)
In this novella, Dostoyevsky captures the obsessions of a pathological gambler — the tantalizing hope of hitting the jackpot, the automatic perception of patterns in the random spins of a roulette wheel, the giddy thrill of a hot streak, and the humiliation of unexpected losses. There may be no better description anywhere in literature of the emotional roller-coaster of financial gains and losses. Meanwhile, Dostoyevsky also skewers the hypocrisy and snobbery of aristocrats who claim not to care about money but grub for gains at the casino and wheedle cash out of each other.
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age (1873)
In this scathing satire, Twain and Warner (then the editor of The Hartford Courant), create an elegantly networked snarl of phony stock promoters, politicians lining their own pockets, naïve investors, and journalists either too stupid or corrupt to warn the public. For the railroads, substitute dot-com stocks; for the coal mines, substitute telecom stocks. For the politicians, no substitutes are necessary. Twain and Warner’s novel is as old as the hills and yet as new as pets.com, Enron, and WorldCom.
Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace” (1884)
Read this famous short story only if you do not already know how it turns out. Struggling on the fringes of high society in Paris, Mathilde Loisel and her husband want to make something more of themselves. After a glorious night on the town leads to trouble, Mathilde discovers things about herself, her husband, and the nature of work and friendship that she never could have imagined.
Leo Tolstoy, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (1886)
James Joyce is said to have called this the greatest short story ever written. It is more a parable or a fable than a short story, but it will never leave you once you read it. Tolstoy tells a deceptively simple tale of a man whose greed is circumscribed only by time. How rich can he make himself before the sun sets?
Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Bottle-Imp” (1893)
In this beautiful little masterpiece, told from the point of view of a Hawaiian fisherman, Stevenson immortalizes the central problem of momentum investing: No matter how many times it seems possible to sell something to someone else who will take it off your hands for the right price, eventually you will run out of such people…and then you will have a really big problem on your hands.
Anton Chekhov, “Rothschild’s Fiddle” (1894)
No one but Chekhov could have written a story so short and so rich. At once highly empathetic and gently mocking, this tale of poverty, loss, and regret is one of the saddest and yet funniest short stories ever written. It also offers a memorable lesson about the importance of knowing when to stop counting what economists call your “opportunity costs.” (Hint: the financial return on your own death is not infinite.)
Mark Twain, “The $30,000 Bequest”
Twain’s short story (from which this volume of stories takes its name) chronicles the way an imaginary fortune changes the lives of a young couple. With keen psychological insight, Twain shows that the anticipation of striking it rich can often be more intense — and more satisfying — than the actual arrival of cash. And when castles in the air collapse, the wreckage is everywhere. First published in 1906.
G.K. Chesterton, “The Honour of Israel Gow” (1911),
from The Innocence of Father Brown
Is it possible to be a “just miser”? Can someone crave wealth without being greedy? In one of the most surprising detective stories you will ever read, G.K. Chesterton shows that the answer to both questions can be yes. And, as usual, he tells the tale in dazzlingly beautiful prose.
Stefan Zweig, “The Invisible Collection” (1925)
In this sensitive short story, Stefan Zweig (to whom — unfortunately — I am not related) shows how the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic turned life upside-down in Germany. The more people loved each other, the worse the lies they had to tell in order to survive. Zweig also reminds us that people are wealthy only to the extent that they love someone, and something, other than money.
Philip Larkin, “Money” (1973)
In one of the chilliest poems ever written about money, we hear the amazingly detached voice of a man who understands nothing about material wealth other than the fact that other people rather seem to enjoy it. What is the point of all that striving and getting, asks Larkin, when it ends in the grave for rich and poor alike? The closest shave of all comes not from an expensive barber, but from the mortician.
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