The best books that explore what money is, from beginning to Bitcoin

Frederick Kaufman Author Of The Money Plot: A History of Currency's Power to Enchant, Control, and Manipulate
By Frederick Kaufman

Who am I?

I am an English professor, and for the past decade I’ve focused my attention on the fiction that is money. I’ve also been a magazine writer for many years and came to money by a circuitous route through writing about food, which led to writing about global hunger, which in turn led to writing about how food gets its price, which finally and lastly led me to the strange ways of Wall Street – options, futures, and the idea that money can be manipulated into a story, a narrative, or as we say in English departments, a plot.


I wrote...

The Money Plot: A History of Currency's Power to Enchant, Control, and Manipulate

By Frederick Kaufman,

Book cover of The Money Plot: A History of Currency's Power to Enchant, Control, and Manipulate

What is my book about?

Half fable, half manifesto, this brilliant new take on the ancient concept of cash lays bare its unparalleled capacity to empower and enthrall us.

The Money Plot tackles the complex history of money, beginning with the earliest myths and wrapping up with Wall Street’s byzantine present-day doings. The book pierces through the haze of modern banking and finance, demonstrating that the standard reasons given for economic inequality are contingent upon structures people have designed. It shines a light on the one percent’s efforts to contain a money culture that benefits them within boundaries they themselves are increasingly setting. And Kaufman warns that if we cannot recognize what is going on, we run the risk of becoming pawns and shells ourselves, of becoming characters in someone else’s plot, of becoming other people’s money.

The books I picked & why

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The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

By Karl Polanyi,

Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Why this book?

This book showed me the way to alternative understandings of money, from one culture to another, over vast periods of time and space. An extraordinary read. Polanyi influenced a little-known school of economics, yet one that is becoming more and more relevant as our understanding of money is transformed by alt- and cryptocurrencies.


The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350

By Robert S. Lopez,

Book cover of The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350

Why this book?

This is an academic book, but don’t let it scare you. As for me – it blew my mind! I had no idea of the level of economic sophistication and advance of Medieval Europe. Lopez explains in extraordinary detail the time period when our modern conception of money—as debt, as mortgage, as loans, and as an international object of commerce—was born.


Rabbit Is Rich

By John Updike,

Book cover of Rabbit Is Rich

Why this book?

This is a novel from the “go-go ‘80s,” and delivers an insight into the money culture of modern middle class America. It’s a deep, comedic, and sad story of marriage, sex, gold, and dollars. The subtle characterizations gave me a strong sense of the human side of money, its emotional weight and valence—indeed, its pathos.


A Grammar of Motives

By Kenneth Burke,

Book cover of A Grammar of Motives

Why this book?

This is one of those lost academic works of genius of the 1950s, in which Burke, an English Professor, uses the idea of “grammar” to explain the motivations of characters in dramatic situations. This book inspired me to write about money as a quite literal “plot”—a way people tell stories about themselves and the universe.


The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600

By Alfred W. Crosby,

Book cover of The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600

Why this book?

This is one of the most lucid explanations of our modern culture of numbers, and deals with topics ranging from music and architecture to, of course, money. It was the “big think” book that most inspired me to consider money not as something in and of itself, but as an artifact of a culture, transformed by time, place, and the genius of individuals.


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