- Love Me Tender:Five Books about Our Turbulent Relationship with Money
When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.—Oscar Wilde
F. Scott Fitzgerald was simply terrible with money. In 1925, during the Fitzgeralds’ spring and summer in Paris, they went out almost every night to Right Bank bars and Left Bank cafés. Scott carried a roll of cash [End Page 168] and tipped generously, the size of the tips increasing with his alcohol intake. In “Babylon Revisited,” his alter ego Charlie Wales recalls those riotous nights out on the town: “All the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word ‘dissipate’—to dissipate into thin air, to make nothing out of something. In the little hours of the night every move from place to place was an enormous human jump, an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion.” Before Wales lost his money during the Crash, he handed out thousand-franc notes to orchestra members and hundred-franc notes to doormen. Yet in retrospect he felt that even the most frivolous squandered sum hadn’t been given for nothing: it was an insurance payment to destiny, so he might remember the things worth remembering.
Few authors have been more candid about their troubled relationship with money. Fitzgerald believed that “all big men have spent money freely.” Once his first novel, This Side of Paradise, made him rich and the money started coming in—$4,000 a story in 1929, making him one of the highest-paid magazine writers of his time—he developed a peculiar attitude toward earning and spending. While money bought him a fuller life with time to write, he was intentionally careless with it, believing that if he could waste it, then it didn’t own him.
Fitzgerald’s youthful craving for metropolitan glamour was stronger than most, but we all have a complex, lifelong relationship with money. Whether we are rich or poor, young or old, money touches many aspects of our lives and is seldom absent from our awareness. Many of us, though, have never thought deeply about it: what it is, exactly, how it works, how it relates to a good life, what its proper place is in our lives, and how it can be used to maximize our happiness.
In Money: The Unauthorized Biography, classics and economics scholar Felix Martin offers a clear and interesting overview of three thousand years of monetary history. He contends that conventional theories of money are false. Despite what’s taught in most introductory economics classes, money did not evolve from a barter economy, a system that would have been too impractical and inefficient. Yet reconstructing monetary history is challenging. Few historical examples of money survive, and what has been found is of a single type—coins. Martin points out that while numerous commodities have been chosen to serve as money—cod in Newfoundland, nails in Scotland, tobacco in Virginia, sugar in the West Indies—gold and silver have always been the most [End Page 169] common choices because they are durable, malleable, portable, and rare.
Money: The Unauthorized Biography
Felix Martin. Vintage 2014, 352 pp., $27.95
While Mesopotamia, the Silicon Valley of the ancient world, is credited with the invention of literacy, numeracy, and accounting, it did not have money. Classical Greece formed the first monetary society that seized upon coinage to represent the new concept of...