50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Money

The Way We Live Now

Good morning, class.

Money: A Suicide Note and The Way We Live Now are a lot alike. Both are about greed and corruption, individually and globally. Both focus on terrible people—those who have decided on a certain lifestyle that hurts themselves and others. Both criticize the world and the poor choices people make to hold on to money or to get it by any means.

But I can’t stress this enough—I hated Money: A Suicide Note. For all it did to successfully criticize the corrupt and greedy world of the late 20th century, I couldn’t enjoy it and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. That wasn’t the case with The Way We Live Now, which wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it was definitely more enjoyable. The Way We Live Now did for the 19th century what Martin Amis’ Money did for the 20th—portrayed a society that was as successful and wealthy as it was deplorable, with all the humor, darkness, and drama that comes with the territory.


Unlike with Money, which told everything from one biased perspective, The Way We Live Now is about the lives of a full cast of characters and shifts focus between different intersecting plots. A few main threads keep everything together and keep things moving, such as the love-life drama of Paul Montague (blatant Romeo and Juliet reference), the upcoming election for a seat in British Parliament, and the repeatedly disastrous behaviors of Sir Felix Carbury.

Author Anthony Trollope

Sir Felix is a spoiled son of reasonable wealth—except that he spends all his time and money gambling. His mother, too afraid of driving him away, enables him by giving him money she doesn’t have, despite what it does to her unmarried daughter, who is far less spoiled and yet far less appreciated. But Sir Felix’s spendthrift ways are nothing compared to his commitments to two different women, both of whom he cares very little for, except that they might be able to provide him with more wealth if he plays his cards right. He is the story’s source of carelessness and insincerity—the purest example of insatiable greed and the path it can lead one to.

But honestly, Sir Felix is redeemable, unlike the novel’s true villain—Augustus Melmotte, a man new to the area running for a seat in Parliament, and doing anything he can to get it. He is a typical political evil—a careful liar, a corporate-level thief, a two-faced celebrity, and a cultural phase that brings out the worst in people on a worldly scale. He steals and attempts to cover it up, abuses people close to him that would traditionally be loved ones, and refuses to accept anything that doesn’t go his way. Melmotte is a smiling, charming criminal, and is everything Sir Felix is but worse. Sir Felix is always just out of reach of being his better self, but Melmotte is nowhere near being redeemable.

Paul Montague’s story is the novel’s redemptive quality. His story is about his attempts to remain a good gentleman in the midst of his chaotic love-life—he no longer loves a woman he is intended for, and he loves someone that his closest friend hopes to marry. He makes some serious missteps, but his intentions are never unclear—he means to be a good person no matter what. He juggles his relationships to find the perfect balance, so that he can maintain his friendship, sincerely end his old engagement, and begin anew with the woman he cares for.

An illustration from The Way We Live Now, featuring Winifred Hurtle and Paul Montague

Then, the threads intersect—Montague’s love is Henrietta Carbury, Sir Felix’s sister; Sir Felix is in a threadbare relationship with Marie Melmotte, Augustus’ daughter, and Augustus disapproves of the relationship; Sir Felix is in an even more threadbare relationship with a girl named Ruby, who, after being kicked out of the house for being involved with Felix, finds herself in the same establishment as the woman Paul is trying to disengage with—an American woman named Winifred Hurtle; Melmotte, Paul, and Felix, as well as several other wealthy people, are involved on the governing board of a North American railway company. Every chapter is like a roll of the dice, and no one knows what social, political, or romantic disaster might happen next—and that does make it an exciting read.


Shifting from character to character is a strength—one that author Anthony Trollope uses to his advantage. Trollope sometimes writes from Paul’s perspective and shows Felix as deplorable as he seems, but then he writes from Felix’s perspective, without changing Felix’s actions or motivations, and makes him sympathetic (or we get to hear from the perspective of his mother or sister, to make things that much more complicated). This is a bolder move than it seems, especially for the time—the novel shows its age by having an overly helpful narrator, referring to us as the reader and guiding us on this journey. There’s some of that throughout the story—a balance between the traditional and the changing future, between the conservative and the progressive. It’s a story as time-tested as Shakespeare, and as experimental as Money.

And for all that, the reason it made the list is in the title—The Way We Live Now. This is a snapshot of English culture in the later half of the 19th century, an era more modern than it used to be and not as modern as today. Trollope’s goal was to point out how greed and corruption were plaguing English society, and with this novel, he does that with as much intrigue as balance. By focusing on that theme in its entirety, The Way We Live Now tackled a wide scope of ideas and truly reflected the world at the time, and with good writing to boot, it’s no wonder it made the list.


Next up, I’m working my way through Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier—another novel that serves as a snapshot of the era, the early 20th century. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Money: A Suicide Note

Good morning, class.

So . . . I’ll just come right out and say it: Money: A Suicide Note is one of my least favorite books of all time.

To read Martin Amis’ Money is to be met with a tour de force of alcoholism, drugs, addiction, rape, sexism, homophobia, manipulation, and toxic behavior the likes of which no one should have to endure. Money is a kaleidoscopic perspective on humanity’s fast and entertaining decay, due almost entirely to the concept of money and its poisonous fumes.

I will admit, there are parts I liked, or at least appreciated. And in theory, the book is a perfect criticism of celebrity lifestyle and capitalism. Money points out our inherent cultural flaw, our need for, dependence on, addiction to money—better than most books I’ve read on the subject. I have no doubt that that’s why this novel made the list.

But the details—the characters, plot, symbols, words—made me sick. It was crass and disgusting. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had known what I was getting into (before seeing the list, I had never heard of Money before, so I went in cold); after all, I’ve seen movies and read books that aim to be offensive, and the best ones, like Money, have a clear and even moral purpose, like criticizing cultural flaws. Still, I’ve never enjoyed reading a book less, and I won’t get that time back.


But the least I can do is tell you who these unlikable characters are, and a bit about what they do that’s so unlikable. The narrator is a man named John Self, a conceited, sadistic, out-of-control addict attempting to adapt his story into a movie. He is surrounded by celebrities that are as self-absorbed as he is, as money-addicted and as morally bankrupt too. He spends his days in constant cycles of prostitutes, alcohol, smoking, and mindless purchases, and all the while he experiences a ceaseless and vulgar inner monologue that is as carefully crafted as it is offensive.

John Self reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield, the main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield is similarly problematic, with his intrusive and offensive thoughts filling up most of the novel; but I liked reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I know exactly why it was better. Caulfield was an angsty teenager, dealing with a lot of personal issues in the way a teenager might—lashing out at adults, behaving irrationally, refusing to face his issues head-on, etc. Even so, ultimately The Catcher in the Rye is about a search for happiness, and Holden’s care for younger children (and their untainted innocence) expresses that. Our focus on a an unlikable narrator becomes our focus on a teenager in crisis and on society’s mistreatment of children.

But Money doesn’t do that. John Self is a grown man, and spends a lot of time blaming his equally terrible father for his own mistakes, despite having the ability to change his ways. He has broad generalizations about the world and its mechanisms, and everything he says is questionable or flat-out immoral. He despises people that are different from him and he despises himself. He crosses the line from offensive to unforgivable far too often, in ways I don’t care to repeat. And unfortunately, he is on every page.


Author Martin Amis

Now, there are things that I like. For instance, its clear that Martin Amis knows what he’s doing—John Self’s diatribes are despicable, but well-written. The clever word choice and puns, the perfectly captured voice of John Self, the balance of the whole story from beginning to end . . . Amis is a craftsman.

Amis also happens to write himself into his own novel—a fun meta twist that uses “character-Martin-Amis” to help show what “writer-Martin-Amis” is trying to do. He gets to poke fun at his own pretentiousness and explain his actions for creating a character like John Self—it’s his way of putting all of the poison of fame and fortune into one tragic character, destroyed inside and out by the way we live now. The episodes with “character-Martin-Amis” stood out as Money‘s most creative and intriguing moments.

And yet, for all its technical brilliance, I can’t stand the novel’s content. Money‘s plot is weak, spending more time creatively caving in on itself than telling a story, which I could live with, except that whatever story is left is detestable. The thinness of the plot is paired with disgusting scene after disgusting scene—an endless episodic bombardment of debasement and degradation. I didn’t enjoy it and I’m glad it’s over now.


With that out of the way, I can look forward to the remaining books on the 50-books-list. I can’t guarantee I’ll enjoy what stories are left, but it’s a safe bet that Money is going to remain at the top of my I-hated-this-book list for quite some time, if not forever.

Next up, I’m finishing The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope—a novel that, so far, I have enjoyed. That’s more than I can say for some books.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

“If we all downed tools and joined hands for ten minutes and stopped believing in money, then money would no longer exist. We never will, of course. Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The great addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now. There’s not even anything very twentieth century about it, except the disposition. You just can’t kick it, that junk, even if you want to. You can’t get the money monkey off your back.”

—from Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

“Should the earth enter turnaround tomorrow, nuke out, commit suicide, then we’ll already have our suicide notes, pain notes, dolour bills—money is freedom. That’s true. But freedom is money. You still need money.”

—from Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

“Money is the only thing we have in common. Dollar bills, pound notes, they’re just suicide notes. Money is a suicide note.”

—from Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

” . . . Elizabeth was struck, not for the first time, by the thought that her life was entirely frivolous.

It was a rush and slither of trivial crises; of uncertain cash-flow, small triumphs, occasional sex and too many cigarettes; of missed deadlines that turned out not to matter; of arguments, new clothes, bursts of altruism and sincere resolutions to address the important things.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

“Jack poured one for me and another big one for himself.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘I missed a lot, boxing.’

‘You made plenty of money.’

‘Sure, that’s what I’m after. You know I miss a lot, Jerry.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘like about the wife. And being away from home so much. It don’t do my girls any good. “Who’s your old man?” some of those society kids’ll say to them. “My old man’s Jack Brennan.” That don’t do them any good.’

‘Hell,” I said, ‘all that makes a difference is if they got dough.’

‘Well,’ says Jack, ‘I got the dough for them all right.’

He poured out another drink. The bottle was about empty.

—from “Fifty Grand” by Ernest Hemingway

A Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas, class!

Celebrate with me—I’ve made it through four months, 10 books, and 50 posts! The finish line may not be exactly close, but I must profess (haha) that I’m having fun. I hope you are as well, students.


A Christmas Carol is one of those classics that everyone sort of knows. Charles Dickens’ novel helped define modern Christmas traditions in Western cultures, and the story and characters are instantly recognizable—especially Ebenezer Scrooge, the 19th Century Grinch who loves money and hates people.

Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost

The fantasy elements—Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as Marley’s Ghost—are grounded by religious themes and societal struggles. Dickens isn’t afraid to get dark—he portrays hunger, poverty, disability, grief, and greed in the Christmas season. A Christmas Carol doesn’t let the joy of Christmas diminish the needs of society, but uses Christmas to represent joy with societal needs in mind…all while redeeming the grumpy old Scrooge.

Scrooge isn’t as much of a “scrooge” as society makes him—he isn’t a stereotype. For one thing, it’s clear from the beginning why he dislikes Christmas: his friend and business partner Marley died at Christmas-time several years ago. He used to enjoy Christmas, but by the beginning of the story, Christmas is nothing but hardship for him, and he has no patience for generosity.

Generosity just happens to be his problem—he plays by the rules of money and capitalism, and giving away money goes against the rules. If everyone fended for themselves, it would be a better world for him. In fact, he could have lived out his days that way, storing up his treasures on earth, had it not been for Marley’s Ghost.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (2009)

The intrusive spirit does Scrooge a favor and shows him the true meanings of Christmas—love, family, friendship, giving, joy. Scrooge is shown what Christmas used to be, what Christmas could be if he doesn’t change, and what Christmas is to the people he claims to hate. Scrooge learns the lesson and is reborn, and (spoiler alert) finds a happy ending.


A Christmas Carol is a transparently humble story—it doesn’t claim to be anything more than what it is. It’s as short as it is humble, and it’s separated into staves (musical sections) rather than chapters, making it more “carol” than “novel.” Dickens’ writing style is particularly unique—long sentences that build up to important points, bleak form and bleak content, etc.—but it rarely sounds dull or dated. Reading the novel feels simultaneously familiar and fresh; it bursts at the seams with originality, but always resembles the ghost of a song we already know.

If you have time this holiday season, I recommend reading it. It’s a quick read and a timeless classic. In our time, when Christmas seems too rushed or commercialized, having fallen prey to money and capitalism, A Christmas Carol is a good way to remind us what this sacred time is really for.

I’ve already started my next read, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which is one of my favorites. Unlike A Christmas Carol, which lightly reminds readers of religious themes and topics, Life of Pi hits religious topics with full force. Post #51, here we come!

Until then, enjoy your holidays,

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts feely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!'”

—from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens