Money Lessons from Literary Fiction

I’m a reformed literary fiction addict. It’s the perfect release for an introverted person. Today I was thinking about some of my favorite books and the role that money plays in them. Sometimes it’s a main character, shaping every action and decision. Sometimes it’s merely a backdrop on which to paint the true main characters.

Jack Kerouac - CC Lic

This is not to suggest that I love money: I don’t. My relationship with it is dysfunctional at best. But it is the currency of life. Without it, we, and other fictional characters like ourselves, can do nothing. Stories would be boring if the characters could not afford to eat a sandwich while discussing the vagaries of life, or share a beer, or worry about where the next meal is going to come from.

Usually people look for books about money in the nonfiction section, but some of the most compelling lessons I’ve learned about money come from showing where it fits into the worldviews of various authors.

Here are some of my favorite books that involve money:


On the Road by Jack Kerouac 

On the Road ruined my life, which is to say it is one of my favorites. I read this in college, somewhere near the end of that journey. The book is ostensibly about “the road,” traveling, and living a subsistence lifestyle in the 1940s and 50s in America. It is a postwar time and everyone is buzzing with either ambition or substances.

The book is largely autobiographical; characters are down-and-out “beats,” poets and writers who live debaucherous lives. They perform a days’ work in order to get a meal and a few bottles of wine to get through the night. Once they have enough in their pocket to get to the next town, off they go, in the backs of pickup trucks or traincars, hitchiking across the new world of interstate highways.

Money in Kerouac’s world is almost communal. People live together in flophouses and whomever has it together the most that day will get everyone some food, and more importantly, some booze. The characters will lie, cheat and steal to get by, and getting by means not having to get a real job. The misery of poverty fuels the art.

Money Lesson: Money and work can be used just to get by, so long as you are fine with sleeping on other people’s floor and couches.


Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis 

You may know Bret Easton Ellis as the man who wrote American Psycho. If you haven’t read the book, maybe you saw the gratuitously violent film starring Christian Bale. Less than Zero was his first published work, released when he was 21 and still in college. This book is haunting, and something I wish I could have created at 21.

The story follows a young rich college kid, Clay, who returns home to LA from an expensive private college in the Northeast. Clay tries to reconcile his life against the vapidness of LA society, where the kids of rich Hollywood moguls engage in lewd, self-destructive behaviors that are shocking, to say the least. He becomes disillusioned with the lifestyle that unfolds from a lack of parental supervision from people who themselves are sociopaths, combined with an infinite stream of money and lines of credit at the finest stores and hotspots.

Money Lesson: When you give kids everything they want without having to work with it, they are able to build a cruel and sadistic world that tries to define life when it has already been defined for them by a magazine.


Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe 

Named after the Dominican tradition of publicly burning luxury items like art, books and cosmetics, the Bonfire of the Vanities revolves around the 1% of New York City in the 1980s, and the greed, politics, racism and class warfare of the times. I wouldn’t say this is one of my favorite books, but it is one of my favorite books about money.

This book showcased the excesses of the newly resurgent Wall Street rich, including the main character, who is investigated for running over a poor, black teen who he thinks is going to rob him. It is a peek into a Park Avenue lifestyle, a place where I will likely never step foot into, even as a guest.

Money Lesson: No matter how much money you have, it is generally not enough to shield you from the tragedies of being human. Having a lot of it will buy you a nice attorney, and usually your own tailor-made justice.


Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand 

I can see you rolling your eyes (and I can’t blame you), but Atlas Shrugged is built entirely around the idea of money and self-worth, and is a fictional way for Ayn Rand to lay out her philosophy of Objectivism in full detail. I also read this at the end of college as I transitioned into adulthood. Mainly I wanted to see if I could read the largest book I’d ever seen.

To summarize the plot for those of you who lack the patience to read an overwrought 1200-page philosophical screed: the people who run America, the titans of industry, science and innovation, tired of government policies of overregulation and wealth redistribution, go on strike by dropping out of society and going into hiding.

This book is a revenge fantasy of many in today’s neoconservative moment, many of whose adherents revere Ayn Rand as their philosophical leader, that ungrateful Americans be punished by having the rich stop providing for us.

The wealthy in Rand’s world care less for money than they do for power and recognition, and the ego boost that comes with it. Socialism and the mutual benefit of collectivism is savaged as a lazy person’s way to freeload off the work of others. In Rand’s world, everything would be better if everyone simply looked after themselves.

Money Lesson: Those who have a lot of money have an entire philosophy to justify greed and selfishness, and a lot of what they say makes sense. Much of it is too idealistic for actual use, however, which creates our modern problem. Government can not do anything efficiently, and the private sector cannot do anything ethically, so they are forever trapped in an endless marriage of mutual inconvenience.


A Different World

Most of what I have learned about money from these works of fiction involves being placed into a world in which I’m not familiar. I’ve never bummed around the country living off handouts and a hard days’ work like Jack Kerouac. I’ve never lived a life of apathy due to having too much money like Clay in Easton Ellis’ world of LA. I’ve never had so much money and so much disdain for those who don’t aspire to have it that I’ve created an entire philosophy around it.

I prefer to let others create these worlds, and to learn what I can from them.


Readers: What are your favorite fiction books that involve money?

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23 thoughts on “Money Lessons from Literary Fiction

  1. Loved this, “This is not to suggest that I love money: I don’t. My relationship with it is dysfunctional at best. But it is the currency of life.”. I can relate.

    I’m not a big fiction reader so instead of a book I’m going to use a movie. In the 90’s there was this movie called Sleepers and in it are 4 male friends. 2 do whatever they want and become hoodlums and go nowhere in the end, and the other 2 get an education, career, etc…. What this movie did was help me choose a path that would last. After HS it’s easy to think temporary and be nearsighted. But the successful paths laid out are those formed over time with hardwork.
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  2. I’d definitely recommend Atlas Shrugged, and also David Copperfield for his Mr. Micawber’s, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery” lesson.
    Drew recently posted..What Exactly Is Financial Freedom?My Profile

  3. I see you’re a big Rand fan! My kids are halfway through the less-dense tome, The Fountainhead. It’s a quicker way to reach similar conclusions, and frankly, I like the story better.

    I don’t recommend the new film, by the way. Unless you’ve read the book ahead of time, it’s pretty difficult to comprehend.

    Funny….the Kerouac book is sitting right here. It’s my next pleasure. You’ve whetted my appetite!
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  4. I probably need to read more fiction books but I can’t always get into them. For the past 3 years, if I’ve read a book it has been non-fiction.

    I’ve heard a lot about the Atlas Shrugged book and will absolutely have to read that one day. While I doubt I’ll agree with the premise, it’s always good to have perspective and form your opinions with multiple opinions in mind.

    If you’re constantly getting all of your information from one source then it’s obvious your perception of things will be morphed around those concepts. Frankly, you end up brain-washed.
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  5. It has been many years since I’ve read a good fiction book. Over that time, I’ve read lots of non-fiction books on various subjects. The books on your list seem like very good reads. I’m particularly interested in Atlas Shrugged, because there was so much buzz about it when the movie came out last year. I didn’t know it was that big of a book. No problem. I still want to read it.
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  6. One of my favorite books ever is War And Peace, and the subplot of Nicolay and Nastasha’s family money problems is a really good one. They have all these estates and properties and live like the other Russian aristocracy, but their father is bad with money and is constantly refinancing their debts to keep their lifestyle afloat. An old book, but it sounds a lot like people today.
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  7. Ahhh, Kerouac. The bumming off others (not in the communal sense, in the lie-cheat-steal sense you mentioned) really irked me when I was reading that book. Ditto in The Good Terrorist, which I’m currently reading. I lost Atlas Shrugged in Buenos Aires halfway through and just have not had the stomach to re-attempt it.
    It is neat to think about the monetary implications in books, especially when they’re more on the periphery than Ayn Rand.

  8. I can’t say I’ve read any of these fiction books. Since I haven’t read a lot over the years, I’ve read mostly escapist fiction that doesn’t deal much with present day issues like money. It is interesting how these books have helped shaped your perspective of money though.
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  9. I love to read. But I can’t get interested in fiction books anymore. I used to read them up in my high school days but I haven’t been interested in them since then.

  10. I wish I had time to read more, because I’ve been known to get completely lost in a novel more than a few times. I don’t think I’ve read any of the books you mentioned, though I’ve heard of almost all of them. With your endorsement, I’ll have to check them out! Sadly, the only books I’ve read recently were from The Hunger Games trilogy! What did they teach me about money? They taught me to always have a fall-back plan! Oh, and not to write a trilogy…because the 3rd book always sucks. I know that doesn’t have much to do with money, but I just had to say it.
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  11. I read several of Ayn Rand’s books when I was in high school. I was probably 14 or 15 when I read her books. I liked them. I did not necessarily agree with all her points, but I found them perplexing. I don’t read as often as I want to. All the books I have read lately have been for school.
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