The price of everything and the value of nothing

FROZEN DESIRE: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money by James Buchan, Picador pounds 17.99 THE REAL MEANING OF MONEY by Dorothy Rowe, HarperC ollins pounds 20

Worrying about money is reassuring, in a way: at least we know that everyone does it. Unlike anxieties about, say, cushion covers or the England cricket team or cellulite, money-worries are universal. And one thing that immediately becomes clear from these two very different books is that there are many different ways of worrying about it.

James Buchan, as always in his writing, leads with the brain, tackling his Big Questions head-first, bombarding them with a formidable intelligence and coralling them into a firmly historical, fact-filled narrative. Dorothy Rowe, as we'd also expect from her much more psychological orientation, takes another route; she leads with the heart and guts, and concentrates more on individuals, starting apparently from the premise that we're all scared of money, and that we all should be.

It is interesting, given the contrast between the books, that the "meaning" of money comes into both titles. It gives us a clue straight away as to what these Big Questions actually are: that we are not, here, talking about real value - water in the desert, for instance, or an absolute moral sense - or about currency and exchange value either in its broader sense (labour or sex, knowledge or skill) or even in its crazier local manifestations (tobacco in prisons, or the tulip in 17th-century Holland), even though all these things, and many more, are covered by Buchan and often mentioned by Rowe.

No, we are firmly in the world of money as a mental and emotional category. Buchan's title, "Frozen Desire", is only one of many such phrases he coins (sorry) in his book: he also has "incarnate desire" (his own), "coined liberty" (Dostoevsky's), to quote just two. Both books are attempts to discover why money matters. We know all the obvious reasons, which are devastatingly simple; these authors want to work out, it seems, why it isn't in fact simple at all.

Although Dorothy Rowe's style is quite different, a certain breathlessness in the face of the subject also unites the writers. "Money is now quite beyond human control" Rowe tells us early on, and ends her preface with "Understanding money is a matter of understanding ourselves". The cooler- headed Buchan seems to echo some of this in his "Money, which we hope to see and hold every day, is diabolically hard to comprehend with words." Diabolically? This is hardly rational language.

Still, once these early signs of panic are over with, both writers settle down. Buchan traces the public history of money dutifully and skilfully, if sometimes a little stodgily, and takes more entertaining excursions into Shakespeare, for instance, and gender relations. This chapter sees Buchan living dangerously. In the name of tough talking, presumably, he decides to pull no punches, but it would require more than the length of this review sufficiently to take issue with this:

"The reticence of romantic love is three-fold. Money conveys desire: it cares not at all where that desire finds satisfaction. To give money to a woman - and here I must speak as a man - is to deny her special quality, her irreplaceability, and reduce her unique amiability to a commodity. Money takes away her name, while transforming her lover into a nameless customer of a market of appetites."

Because Rowe's book is based more extensively on interviews and people's own expressions of their feelings about money, from children's pocket money to whopping city deals, it takes a line which is easier to sympathise with. But she does occasionally trip herself up on statements which are half crashingly obvious, half obscure ("Clothing is essential in more ways than protecting us from the cold. We use clothing to maintain our sense of existence and ward off the threat of annihilation"). Her book could have been a good deal shorter without losing any of its essence.

So, do either of these books actually answer the Big One: the one about why money is no simple matter? At the end of each book, we feel we know a lot more facts (courtesy of Buchan) or a lot more about attitudes (thanks to Rowe), but in trying to sum up the hard business of financial coinage their linguistic coinage goes a bit haywire. Buchan gets increasingly orotund and schoolmasterish ("So we see..."; "we have learnt that..."): "Amid thoughts like these, we ... marvel at the prophecies of St Matthew: that the agony of Jesus on the Cross was not at his own death but the death of his doctrine ... as he closed his eyes, he saw, first dimly and then with great clarity, the thirty tetradracms."

Perhaps this is an occasion to which one just can't rise. I got increasingly fascinated by the aphorisms and quips which decorate both books. It was Oscar Wilde (always the master) who defined a cynic as a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; also enjoyable is Somerset Maugham's "Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five". There are many more, and they are more than just entertaining: in some ways, these apparently throwaway remarks get closer to the heart of this scary subject than all the learning in these books, fascinating and highly readable though they both are.

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'