Summer Reading for the Tasteful and Preoccupied

I know what I'll be reading this summer. SEC enforcement orders! But also some other stuff.
Who doesn't like books? Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Last week, Moneybeat had a post on JPMorgan’s summer book recommendations, “a reading list of 10 books specifically chosen to appeal to the tastes and preoccupations of the wealthy.” They worked hard on it:

Getting on the 10-book list isn’t easy. This year employees from J.P. Morgan Asset Management offices around the world submitted 568 titles that were reviewed by a 16-person committee.

Somehow the 16-person committee ended up with a list that was a little … a little heavy on TED talks and Arianna Huffington for my tastes, frankly. 1 Just in case you might share my tastes, rather that the committee's, for the rest of the summer I’m going to occasionally offer my own reading suggestions. Like JPMorgan’s, my books will be specifically chosen to appeal to the tastes and preoccupations of the wealthy, 2 though our views of those preoccupations may vary.

Let's start with common ground, though. One thing you can tell from JPMorgan’s list is that the wealthy are preoccupied with lists of books chosen by committees. As it happens, I can recommend a novel about that precise topic, Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn, a farce about the Man Booker Prize. One of the pleasures of this book is that, while most of the literary and quasi-literary and political characters in it come off terribly, 3 the wealthy business couple who sponsors the prize pops up at the last minute to display a surprising amount of literary taste and good sense. The gratifying moral is that getting rich in business qualifies you as a judge of literature.

St. Aubyn, incidentally, became famous for writing a series of autobiographical novels -- Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last -- that are about some of the tastes and preoccupations of the wealthy. Unfortunately those particular tastes include sexual abuse of children and drug-induced self-destruction, so there’s some rough sledding. This series is richer and less farcical than "Lost for Words," though about as funny.

What else do the rich like? Boats! Rich people, I have been led to believe, enjoy the boating lifestyle. And if you want to read a book about boats, a book that you can read about boats is The Shipping Man, by Matthew McCleery. I hesitate to recommend it too strongly, in part because you’ve probably already read it. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that everyone on Wall Street has read it this year, and they’ve apparently all gone out and either bought cargo ships or, if they already had cargo ships, they hired McCleery to sell them. 4

The back cover describes the book as “Part fast paced financial thriller, part ship finance text book,” and that is ... that is at least partially accurate? Certainly it has the dialogue and characterization of a ship finance textbook. But it’s not a “financial thriller” in the usual sense of being about financial crime and murder, though Somali pirates make a brief appearance. No, this is a “financial thriller” in the sense of, “you’ll be thrilled by all this finance.”

Will you be? Hmm. I came around to at least a grudging enjoyment of all the finance, but I am a really weird guy. SPOILER ALERT, but I believe it was Chekhov who said that, if a character specifically negotiates a bond indenture to allow the interest escrow to be invested in corporate bonds in chapter 19, then that interest escrow has to be used to buy back those bonds at a huge distressed discount in chapter 27. McCleery follows that universal narrative law, and the result had me giggling embarrassingly.

If you have already read "The Shipping Man," there's some chance that you'll enjoy the sequel, Viking Raid: A Robert Fairchild Novel, which I ... have purchased. I don't know how you top the interest-escrow thing but perhaps eventually I'll find out.

In other boating news, Geoff Dyer spent some time on an aircraft carrier and wrote a new book about it, called Another Great Day at Sea. You might think that a nuclear powered Nimitz-class supercarrier would not be a pleasure craft, but you would be mostly wrong. Everyone Dyer talks to seems to be having an almost suspicious amount of fun on the ocean, though I guess he doesn’t talk much to all the sailors he sees swabbing the decks and hallways and the rest of the things that get swabbed, which are legion. There are also leadership lessons here; in chapter 37, a newly promoted lieutenant commander gives what Dyer calls “absolutely the most impressive speech that I had ever heard; to have quoted Sassoon (Vidal, not Siegfried) was a touch of genius.”

Boating is of course just one of many answers to the great question of wealth, which is: How can money be used to buy happiness? Perhaps my favorite literary effort to answer that question is Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder, about a man who receives a large monetary settlement for being hit on the head by some debris. He briefly considers some of the usual methods of converting money into happiness -- investing, charity, drugs -- but rejects them for much stronger stuff. There’s a lot of positioning cats on rooftops and a certain amount of bank robbery. McCarthy writes with an almost Proustian sense of how deep and strange the sources of happiness are, and how different they are from what we expect them to be.

One last recommendation, or pair of recommendations, that I’ll throw in here are Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Pitch Dark. These aphoristic novels came out in 1976 and 1983 and were reissued last year, when they had a bit of a vogue. I have no real excuse for listing them here except that they’re wonderful, and that they feel vaguely vacationy to me, and also perhaps this passage from "Pitch Dark":

When one of our oldest reporters, a not untalented man, wrote a long piece, in three parts, entitled Can the Rich Write?, I asked one of my favorite editors why on earth we published it. It’s satire, he said. Satire? I said. It’s the most slavish, interminable, pointless exercise in snobbery I’ve ever seen in print. Ah, well, he said, you see, it’s satire that cuts both ways. I’ve had twenty years to think about this, and I know that, whatever the editor can have meant -- satire of subject and author, satire of subject and reader, satire of author and reader – whatever he can have thought he meant, there is simply no such thing as satire that cuts both ways.

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  1. And for Gawker’s.

  2. Unlike JPMorgan’s, mine will not be limited to new books. I’m just, like, a guy, not a committee of 16 with hundreds of people to screen books for me.

  3. The exceptions seem to be the thinly veiled substitutes for Edward St. Aubyn.

  4. Presumably to his other readers.

To contact the author on this story:
Matthew S Levine at

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at

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