Five books to put on your Christmas list

Even if they’ve done nothing else, lockdowns – in whatever guise – have given us plenty of time to read. Merryn Somerset Webb picks five books to enjoy over the festive period and beyond.

Fed up with the seemingly endless cycle of lockdown and release in the UK at the moment? Spare a thought for residents of Newark during the first English Civil War.

The Royalist town found itself besieged three times between 1642 and 1646, once for a month, once for four and once for five. While in the last period of what we might see as a super extreme lockdown, the residents of Newark did some of the same things we’ve been doing for the past 12 months. Most interestingly, they got creative with money: having lost access to the country’s currency, they minted their own. Local nobles were persuaded to give up their silver plates, cups and cutlery, which were minted into rough, diamond-shaped coins that were then declared to be of various values and used to pay soldiers and the like. 

We aren’t quite making coins in our kitchens – but we are also showing significant imagination when it comes to the creation and use of money: we are banishing cash; building a new bubble in bitcoin; and, crucially, barely noticing as our governments drive fast money supply growth by guaranteeing bank loans. 

Money: The True Story of A Made-Up Thing

By Jacob Goldstein

Buy on Amazon here

Both cases – Newark and now – tell you the same story: if everyone agrees a thing is money – be it bits of someone else’s old forks or some numbers on a screen – it is money. For more on how this psychological trick works, the first book in the pile you will be giving to someone else at Christmas in order to take back and read later, should be Jacob Goldstein’s Money: The True Story of A Made-Up Thing.

It misses out Newark. But that apart, as we get ready for a new wave of state-backed money creation and the consequent inflation, it’s well worth reading. As Goldstein says, money constantly changes. “The way we do money will look as strange to our great grandchildren as a world where banks print their own paper money with pictures of Santa Claus.”

As an aside, if you want to give a genuinely valuable inflation-hedging gift perhaps seek out one of the surviving Newark coins. They are scarce, genuinely interesting (you can still spot bits of cutlery decoration on some of them), and made (mostly) of precious metal. Perfect.

On the subject of the coming inflation, I’d like to point to an older book that celebrates how, in part, we are going to get there. I had been considering Kate Humble’s A Year of Living Simply for this column. There’s something very worthy about trying to live without stuff – and something very charming about the idea that the pandemic has taught us all the joys of buying fewer complicating possessions. It’s just that I suspect lockdown has actually taught us something else – that money burns holes in our pockets fast.

Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is good for the Economy, the Environment and Your Soul

By James Livingston

Buy on Amazon here

We love to consume. Why else would retail sales in the UK have risen 5.8% year-on-year in October? Quite. So no Humble. Instead, to help you feel good about what you are about to do (spend, spend, spend) turn to James Livingston’s 2011 book, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is good for the Economy, the Environment and Your Soul. His argument boils down to the basic point that it is consumption that drives economies.

Policy should therefore ignore the “New Puritans” and be directed towards encouraging this above all else (in the main via higher wages). Obsessed as I am by saving for my pension, I’m not entirely convinced, but our governments presumably are, given the way they are shovelling cash directly into people’s pockets and the way in which that will drive next year’s economic boom.

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

Buy on Amazon here

While we are celebrating things we have temporarily lost, it is time to look for the marvellous in our great cities, something else we keep being told, wrongly, that we have fallen out of love with. So get The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. You’ll immediately be in a rush to get to New York to notice for yourself the various coloured markings on the sidewalks: blue tells you there is potable water below; orange that there is network infrastructure. Not just the history of design, but the history of progress too.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds 

By Charles MacKay

Buy on Amazon here

Next, on the subject of group think and general hysteria, your own pre-Christmas reading should include Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

If you are anything in the City, you will think you have read it. Mostly, you probably have not. You may have skimmed the chapters on The South Sea Bubble and Tulipmania for nice quotes for your research notes. This time, ignore those and read about the mass hysterias behind the Crusades, when it was said that “a grove of 100 oaks would not have furnished all the wood sold in little morsels as remnants of the true cross”. Or delve into the witch-hunting manias of the 1600s – the horse shoes you sometimes see above English doors are the remnants of protection from witches – and the regular recycling of end-of-the-world terrors.

You may particularly enjoy the apocalypticism of 1630s plague-ridden Milan in which “everything was believed to have been poisoned by the devil . . . all objects of touch were poisoned, the walls of the houses. and the very handles of the doors”. This should give you plenty of lunchtime ammunition for a three-household row about the efficacy or not of government lockdown policy over Christmas lunch.

Investing for Growth, How to Make Money by Only Buying the Best Companies in the World

By Terry Smith

Buy on Amazon here

Finally an investment book. This year it has to be Terry Smith’s Investing for Growth, How to Make Money by Only Buying the Best Companies in the World, a collection of his writing over the decade since he launched his flagship Fundsmith Equity Fund.

Fundsmith is up well over 400% since its launch, against under 200% for the MSCI World Index. I could dispute something on around half of Smith’s pages – we’ve been bickering about fees for at least a decade. But I hugely admire his concentrated conviction-led, growth-focused approach, and, oh yes, his fund has done wonders for my self-invested personal pension. So I’m still reading every page.

• This article was first published in the Financial Times

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