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Shelf Life

Beach reads: ‘Little Dorrit’

Marketplace Staff Aug 15, 2007
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Shelf Life

Beach reads: ‘Little Dorrit’

Marketplace Staff Aug 15, 2007
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Tess Vigeland: Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.”Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society.” If a good old-fashioned bodice-ripper isn’t your thing, perhaps you’d like to try one of those?

All week, we’ve been running suggestions from our commentators on the best business beach books out there. Books that won’t make you sleepy, just smarter, while you dig your toes into the sand.

Commentator and writer David Frum offers up a classic that’s all about the markets right now.


David Frum: Life, as the signs in the liquor stores say, is too short to drink bad wine. And summer is too short to read bad books. So soak up Charles Dickens’ mid-life masterpiece about wealth, class, business and finance: “Little Dorrit.”

In Little Dorrit, non-work is the root of all evil. Aristocratic scorn for work, bureaucratic obstruction of work, plain old lazy shirking of work, and the speculative hunger for wealth without work.

At the center of the novel is a great speculation headed by a banker named Merdle, described in the text as the master spirit of the age. There never was, there never had been, there never again should be such a man as Mr. Merdle. Nobody knew what he had done, but everybody knew him to be the greatest that had appeared.

Dickens offers few details of Merdle’s schemes. Indeed, it’s not clear that Merdle himself ever really understood them. But others convince themselves — for no good reason — that Merdle will make them fabulously rich.

Bred at first, like many epidemics, in the wickedness of men, and then disseminated in their ignorance, this speculative mania gets communicated to many sufferers who are neither ignorant nor wicked.

It all goes bust, of course. Victims furiously blame everyone else for their own cupidity. Only the hero, businessman Arthur Clennam, reacts with integrity. “If the money I have sacrificed had been all my own, Mr Rugg,” Clennam sighs to his lawyer, “I should have cared far less.”

“Indeed, sir?” says Mr. Rugg, rubbing his hands with a cheerful air. “You surprise me. That’s singular, sir. I have generally found, in my experience, that it’s their own money people are most particular about. I have seen people get rid of a good deal of other people’s money, and bear it very well. Very well indeed.”

A lot has changed between Charles Dickens’ time and ours. But not that.

Vigeland: David Frum is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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