I’ve always loved reading. From the back of the cornflake packet at breakfast, to the newspapers, websites and books I read for work, to the 3ft pile of to-be-reads waiting for me on my bedside table at night, I always have something on hand. My bookshelves are crammed with everything from Jane Eyre to Jack Reacher. The only thing I had, until recently, never touched were the newspapers’ economic and business pages. Impenetrable, I thought, and nothing to do with me.
That all changed in 2007, when the financial crisis hit. Suddenly, the economy was everyone’s business. As the repercussions were felt – as Lehman Brothers collapsed, as rumours (later confirmed as fact) abounded that we had been minutes away from running out of notes in our cash machines – the whole thing took on a storybook quality. Suddenly, there was a narrative to follow. A tale of greedy bankers and trusting little folk, involving multiple plots, twists, narratives and counter-narratives. Money itself was exposed as a fiction. If nobody believed in it any more, we realised en masse, it might cease to exist.
It’s enough to make anyone want to retreat into the world of books. But once there, this new awareness of the function of money, of the fundamental importance and yet fragility of the economy, kept intruding. The clamour outside the pages grew, as people – most notably the Queen – started asking why nobody saw it coming and whether economists had run out of ideas for repairing the situation. I wondered if a lifetime’s faith in books – always so far repaid – could help me to understand what was going on and perhaps even help economists through the maelstrom of disasters, questions and repercussions they were now trying desperately to negotiate.
Dickens’s Mr Micawber most famously sums up the basic economic principle to which we should all have cleaved a little more tightly: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was a one-man mercantile-capitalist band, while his Moll Flanders was a woman well aware of both the price and the value of everything, a highly successful broker in marriage and certain prized goods we shan’t specify in a family magazine. The Grapes of Wrath suddenly starts looking more like a how-to manual than a literary touchstone when you are staring down the barrel of a potentially worldwide recession.
You could track the journey of the Confederate dollar in Gone with the Wind and learn some bone-chilling lessons, or the growth of the eponymous Little Town on the Prairie if you wanted a dash of optimism instead. What does the economic organisation of Panem in The Hunger Games have to tell us? Or, at the other end of the chronological scale, you might even want to take a look at the classical figures of Hubris and Nemesis, who have conceivably had a hand in these disordered financial times.
In the end, I settled on five books whose authors offer brilliant illustrations of various aspects of our troubles and possible ways to solve or avoid them in the future.
THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY – Douglas Adams
There is a planet called Magrathea that caters for the universe’s financial elite, creating bespoke planets for them – until it’s sucked up pretty much all the money there is and the economy crashes. Magrathea goes into hibernation, leaving orders to be awoken when the stock market indicates that boom times are back. Can’t we do that? Why not? Haven’t half of our fiscal problems arisen because of – to misquote Blaise Pascal slightly – businessmen’s inability to sit quietly in a little room alone instead of inventing collateralised debt obligations?
THE STORY OF THE TREASURE SEEKERS – E Nesbit
Instead of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood classics, I picked this to see if we could learn from the Bastables’ no-nonsense approach when facing domestic economic disruption and decline – digging for gold. Are precious metals still the thing? Can we still put our trust in the world’s oldest currency? Or have we moved too far from those simple times when you could draw a fortune from the earth and live on it for life?
THE MILLION POUND BANK NOTE – Mark Twain
A nugget of pure genius. The effectively penniless hero is given – and you may be ahead of me here – a million-pound note by two unknown benefactors who have a bet about whether this will make him or break him. What follows is an object lesson in the importance not necessarily of being rich, but of seeming so, as well as a vivid illustration of the Bible’s assurance that to those who have shall be given more. What would happen if you built entire national economies on these two pillars? What could possibly go wrong?
THE LAST CHRONICLE OF BARSET – Anthony Trollope
I had to include some Trollope – a man who knew just as well as Dickens the value and necessity of money and the humiliations of poverty. Just about all his works are infused with this knowledge, but in the end I plumped for The Last Chronicle of Barset, whose characters are divided about the appeal of land and property versus the new, fast-moving “city money” that is coming to dominate life, both of which resonate with everyone – especially London homeowners – today.
Because the more I learnt from the economists and academics I talked to and the fiction and nonfiction books I read, the more I longed for someone to come along with a magic wand and sort everything out. Must happy endings always be confined to fairy tales?
Literary Solutions to the Economy is on Monday – Friday at 1:45pm on Radio 4