From time to time people ask me to give them recommendations on good finance books. When I respond, I either get blank stares or laughs…

What’s so funny about the Tao Te Ching, Thoreau’s Walden, or Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness?

Were they expecting something like Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace, Kiyosaki’s Poor Dad / Rich Dad or Curtis Faith’s Way of the Turtle? While these are good books (at least measured by sales), I’m not sure it’s responsible to blindly send people on their way to read how someone else got rich. Did the authors of these finance books get rich as a result of reading a book about getting rich? Or did they find success by finding their own pathway to it?

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. ~ Basho

As you may have already guessed, my reasoning for recommending non-financial books for financial guidance is three-tiered:

  1. The world doesn’t need more lists of “best financial books.” There are too many as it is now.
  2. Most people that ask for financial book recommendations don’t want to read a financial book; they want a get-rich-quick book.
  3. I believe the greatest need in the Business/Finance section of book stores is the Books to Read Before You Read the Finance Book section. Outside of Wall Street, the purpose of money is not to make more money; it is to serve a non-financial purpose. Therefore it is philosophy that guides finance: Life is not about making money; money is about making a life.

Furthermore, book recommendations are no more objective than any other “best of” list designed to attract curious readers who end up angry at the list author for not including their selection of what is “best.” It is the readers that know what is best, right?

Barry got it right when he asked readers (you) for ideas on the Greatest American Rock and Roll Band, which remains among his all-time popular posts on this blog. In the post, he briefly offered his own top three rock bands but quickly asked the readers for theirs.

In that spirit, I’d like to know what you believe are the top 3 non-financial financial books.

As Barry would say, “What say ye?”


Kent Thune is blog author of The Financial Philosopher. You can follow him on Twitter @TheThinkersQuill.

Category: Books, Philosophy

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

38 Responses to “The Best (Non-Financial) Financial Books”

  1. steveh18 says:

    I’d agree with the Tao, the Gilbert book is OK, oddly enough never read Walden. A little Emerson never hurt, though.

  2. SkepticalOx says:

    Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

    I’d also put Taleb’s Black Swan and Antifragile in the maybe not really a finance book category, given his love/hate relationship with finance, and his books covering a wild array of topics that are non-finance related.

  3. brokrbob1 says:

    The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
    The Natural by Bernard Malamud
    East of Eden by John Steinbeck

  4. Beau Beau says:

    Best 3 books would be Lonesome Dove, The little Red Hen and People of the Book..what say ye?….finance would be Richest Man in Babylon, One of the Bogle Books and Snow Ball ( Buffet)..

  5. Molesworth says:

    Slam dunk– 1) Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow
    2) M. Mitchell Waldrop: Complexity, The Emerging Science at the Edge of Science and Chaos
    Lots of thirds, but could be…
    3) Kevin Phillips: Wealth and Democray
    I could change my minds when I think on it more.

  6. OPnhnd says:

    The Inner Game of Tennis By W. Timothy Gallwey

    Getting control of our own mental games is the first step at winning at anything.

  7. Molesworth says:

    As long as I’m “awaiting moderation”
    Lots of thirds, but could be…
    Seneca: Letters and Essays–loads of editions with his writings

  8. ReductiMat says:

    So many good books. These ones jump out the most for me.

    Thinking, Fast and Slow, Khaneman
    The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Mlodinow
    The Believing Brain, Shermer
    Black Swan/Anti-Fragile, Taleb

  9. gstream says:

    Lowenstein’s Buffet: The Making of an American Capitalist (Anything by Lowenstein is fantastic)
    Lewis’s Liar’s Poker (just fun. Warning: will make you want to be 25 in the 80s and trade mortgage bonds)
    Halberstam’s The Reckoning (profile of the auto industry. Phenomenal.)

    • gstream says:

      Obviously I got too excited and didn’t read the post carefully enough and just posted some of my favorite business books.

      Here are three non-financial financial books:

      Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit
      Lewis’s Moneyball
      Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (teaches you how life really is, except for the dragons and whitewalkers)

  10. Crocodile Chuck says:

    Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’

    Nassim Taleb, ‘Fooled by Randomness’

    Fred Schwed, ‘Where Are The Customers’ Yachts’

  11. woolybear1 says:

    “The House of Intellect” by Jacques Barzun, a wonderful book that made me feel like an uneducated lout.

  12. TerryC says:

    1). The Merchant of Venice-If you go into debt and can’t pay it back, then be prepared to lose a pound of flesh.

    2). Utopia-Slaves and criminals are bound with chains of gold, giving citizens a healthy dislike for the metal.

    3). Any of the numerous Star Trek novels-The economics of the future are quite different-something that I think we would all like to see happen in the not-too-distant future.

    • rd says:

      The Mercvhant of Venice also teaches you that you can’t even get the pound of flesh by the time the lawyers are done with you.

      • TerryC says:

        Ahh, but she was a female posing as a lawyer. Obviously today the ABA would complain about that and have her arrested for impersonating a shyster. Besides, she won her case, so she was too good of a fake lawyer to be allowed to continue in the profession.

  13. ryanhawk says:

    “The Unexpected Universe” by Loren Eiseley, “Mastery” by George Leonard, and the much more recent “Trust” by Russell Hardin. The books I want to read are the (non-reference) books others have read at least twice, and still recommend.

  14. F. Lynx Pardinus says:

    A few novels that I’ve enjoyed in the last few years,
    Railsea by China Mieville (infrastructure companies run amok.)
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Milo Minderbinder)
    the entire Asian Saga by James Clavell (the origin and growth of the Noble House)

  15. Singmaster says:

    Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own – about independence
    Aristotle: Politics and Nicomachean Ethics – man, happiness, prudence, moderation, civic duty.
    Crane Brinton: The Anatomy of Revolution – History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
    Orhan Pamuk: Other Colors — Thought provoking. Per The Baltimore Sun: …”part diary, part travelogue, part confession, part writer’s guide to the galaxy, part political tract, part spiritual journey, part paean to the beauty of language and the configuration of words.”

  16. miamijim says:

    Barry: Many thanks for turning me on to Kent Thune and his blogpost!!! Try reading anything by Ken Kesey and grok over that.

  17. Kent Thune says:

    Thank you everyone for the recommendations. My ultimate objective in writing this post for Barry was to tap into your wealth of knowledge for a few good reading ideas.

    I will comment generally on several of your responses:

    I’ve not read any Taleb but many friends highly recommend him. Should I begin with Fooled By Randomness or Anti-fragile? It seems I may enjoy the latter more than the prior.

    Regarding Aristotle, I’ve not read any of his works outside of reference material. I think my hesitation is that he is so widely read that I want to find other philosophers that are not-so-widely read. Is my thinking wrong here? I know I need to round out my Greek philosopher education with him so I think I’ve already made the decision to read him. What are some good books to begin? Ethics? What else?

    What little I’ve from Virginia Woolf sounds alluring. Thanks for the reminder of her brilliant work.

    I need to read some Steinbeck!

    I also need to read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and I need to read more from Seneca.

    I’ll leave you with this:

    “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” ~ Carl Sagan

    • lurvey says:

      You should probably start with Anti-fragile. Taleb answers you question in the beginning of the book. He describes Anit-fragile as the culmination of his work on randomness and Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan were his process of getting there. He also refers to the two prior books as now being supplementary material to Anti-fragile.

  18. rd says:

    Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Mackay is absolutely essential reading to understand both finance and politics. It is also quite humorous and is a fast read, but is a key reference to go back to whenever somebody approaches you with a can’t lose proposition. Since it was written in 1841, you can even get ebook versions free online.

    A much more recent book, The Innocent Man by John Grisham, is an incredibly scary book on how easily our supposedly noble system is tilted against the poor, as much by overall incompetence, inattention, desire to not be incovenienced as much as anything else.

  19. Kekepana says:

    You can learn so much from history that is relevant to finance or investing. Some of the recommendations above come close, but I’m not seeing many real histories or biographies. Some on my list would be:

    Samuel Eliott Morrison’s The European Discovery of America.
    Richard Hough’s Captain James Cook: A Biography.
    Geoffrey Trease’s The Condottieri (amazing how relevant Renaissance mercenaries are to today’s world).
    Almost anything by Shelby Foote, Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough or Sterling Seagrave.
    I’m reading The Plantagenets, by Dan Jones, right now. Talk about dysfunctional families, but they achieved greatness in spite of it.

  20. faulkner says:

    Fiction or non-fiction? Ancient or modern?

    It seems to me you are looking for books that induce a change in perspective. “Perspective is worth 20 IQ points. A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” to quote Alan Kay of Xerox PARC fame. The thing is, books that can change perspectives are often difficult reads – unless they are very entertaining. Charles MacKay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” certainly fits the bill, but is it non-financial? The fictional equivalent could be Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.”

    Forget about reading Aristotle. His mistakes are already in our everyday thinking. As for contemporary non-fiction, the declared difficult read is certainly Nassim Taleb, though I find him clear and entertaining. Start with “The Black Swan.”

    Finally, a personal favorite (and not the only one), David Hackett Fischer’s “Historians’ Fallacies.” A compendium of all of the ways thinking over time (which investors do) can go wrong with examples. Written long before current heuristics and biases craze. It ought to be much better known.

  21. faulkner says:

    Addendum –

    Forget about reading Aristotle. His mistakes are already in our everyday thinking. To gain some real perspective (maybe more than you want), read John Ralston Saul’s “Voltaire’s Bastards,” and find out how reason went wrong (and still is). It fits nicely with “The Black Swan” and Kahenman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” and predates both of them.

  22. pmorrisonfl says:

    ‘At least once in your life you should read the Bible all the way through because it does not say what you expect it to say, no matter what you expect it to say.’ – Kevin Kelly

    ‘The Conquest of Happiness’, Bertrand Russell
    ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis
    ‘Catch-22′, Joseph Heller
    ‘Getting Things Done’, David Allen

    I know a guy who uses Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when he teaches software engineering, one of its many uses.

    And I’ll vote, along with nearly everyone else, for ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.

  23. DiggidyDan says:

    Dostoevsky – The Gambler
    Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
    Sinclair – The Jungle

    of the top of my head.

  24. I always assign our new Members to watch “The Man Who Planted Trees.”

    It’s not a book, but it’s a fantastic allegory for having a long-term investing strategy and how you can grow a portfolio one step at a time.

    Have a nice weekend,

    - Phil

  25. Nice on-line version of Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is here:

  26. Orange14 says:

    It takes some patience to get acclimated to all the dialogue (book is 99% dialogue), but William Gaddis’s ‘JR’ is immensely rewarding. 2nd choice would be Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Way We Live Now.’ Both chronicle the rise and fall of financiers.

  27. peggysue says:

    Certainly the Merchant of Venice and the European Discovery of America


  28. Singmaster says:

    If you get Walden Pond, I highly recommend an annotated version because there is a lot more going on than was first meets the eyes.
    Her conclusion:
    If you want a book that has a lot more HDT than just WALDEN, find a used copy of the Philip Van Doren Stern book.
    If you want to hear from expert Walter Harding, choose his.
    Individuals who want the most comprehensive interpretation should go with the newest volume by Jeffrey Cramer. It’s a worthy addition to the Thoreau legacy.

    The best explanation I’ve found for the various versions:
    “Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition” by Jeffrey S. Cramer was released in August 2004, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the original publication date. Cramer is the curator of collections for The Thoreau Institute and therefore has access to some of the best primary and secondary source material available — including Walter Harding’s notes.
    In addition to the text of WALDEN, this volume includes a few “extras”: an introduction to Thoreau’s life but only as it applies to his cabin stay and WALDEN writing; a bibliography; notes on the text; and a detailed index. The explanatory notes — the essence of an annotated edition — are quite extensive. They are set off from the WALDEN text with page-within-a-page graphic detailing and are easy to read. Cramer did not merely merge Van Doren Stern’s and Harding’s previous notes with those from David Gorman Rohman’s dissertation. His analysis at times echoes that of Harding, but when it does, Cramer often goes one step further with a definition or citation. He has thoughtfully used a “Notes on the Text” appendix to outline HDT’s wording differences in the various drafts of the work. Thus his annotations are not bogged down by minor editorial alterations that the casual reader may not care about. Unlike Harding, Cramer refrains from expressing personal opinions and lets the research speak for itself. An added bonus is a reproduction of Edward Emerson’s map of Walden Pond which shows the location of Thoreau’s bean-field as Waldo’s son remembered it. The only cumbersome quality in this publication is the placement of WALDEN chapter titles at the bottom of the pages instead of the top. This otherwise stellar volume is beautifully presented with a cover photo of the cabin reproduction as it currently stands in Walden Pond State Recreation Area. A classy edition by all accounts.

    Lining up the three versions side by side is an interesting experiment, best conducted on a rainy summer day when no other work has appeal. Let’s use two well-known and oft-debated passages for an initial sample interpretive comparison.

    “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail.” (“Economy”) Do those three animals stand for actual individuals in Thoreau’s life? Or does this passage simply refer to Life’s losses? Philip Van Doren Stern devotes a page-length note to this paragraph. He mentions a few of the major interpretations and refers readers to the bibliography for more. His conclusion is: “Since there is no clear explanation, each reader will have to supply his own.” Walter Harding offers three pages in a special appendix that covers all the major theories. At the end, he too suggests that “each reader is free to interpret them as he wishes.” Jeffrey Cramer’s paragraph cites two similiar excerpts found in other Thoreau pieces, and his explanation states that “no analysis has been generally accepted as valid.” So the three men agree: we have to decide for ourselves what we think of the story.

    “There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection.” (“Conclusion”) Is the parable that follows that opening sentence based on some of the Eastern texts that Thoreau was fond of reading at the time? Or is it a thinly-disguised depiction of his own struggle to perfect the final WALDEN manuscript? Philip Van Doren Stern simply says that “no one has been able to find a source for the legend” and agrees with Arthur Christy that it is an allegory about Thoreau’s own life. Walter Harding offers several possible origins of the legend but eventually cites and agrees with Christy’s allegory statement. Jeffrey Cramer devotes just a two-sentence annotation, concluding with “It is generally agreed that the following fable is by Thoreau.” In this instance, Cramer has the benefit of time over his colleagues. Most Thoreauvians have come to the same realization during the past decade after much gnashing of teeth.

    Explanatory differences are more pronounced at other various junctures in the text. Each man obviously was intrigued by certain references more than others. I can say that overall, I found Jeffrey Cramer’s annotations to be the most helpful of the three. Maybe someday someone will have the courage to tell all the makers of posters, bumper stickers, and t-shirts that “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in” is NOT about fishing at all.

    Every school and public library should own at least one of these annotated editions. Academic libraries will want at least two of the three versions. If you want a book that has a lot more HDT than just WALDEN, find a used copy of the Philip Van Doren Stern book.
    If you want to hear from expert Walter Harding, choose his.
    Individuals who want the most comprehensive interpretation should go with the newest volume by Jeffrey Cramer. It’s a worthy addition to the Thoreau legacy.

  29. drveen says:

    Neal Stephenson: The Baroque Cycle (actually 3 books). Brilliant historical fiction of the enlightenment including much about the “invention” of science via the Royal Society, and modern finance – banking, trading. Great fun history lesson.

  30. Singmaster says:

    Bought Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Mackay.
    Will look at some of the others later when I have time.

    Re Aristotle. Well, others didn’t find him useful but I have in constructing my purpose, understanding of others, society, etc. Like Shakespeare or legalese, comprehension is tough when you first start reading him, but once you get the style down, it’s a snap. I have the Ernest Barker translation.
    Not relevant? Well you have consider the times. He writes about “men” but women are a level below that and slavery is a “natural state.”
    If you want more Greek philosophy, try Guthrie: Greek Philosophers: From Thales to Aristotle.
    Aristotle wrote “Humor is the only test of gravity, for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.”
    I have read that this by Cathcart and Klein is on Taleb’s recommended reading list:
    Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.
    It includes: A Buddhist walks up to a hot-dog stand and says, “Make me one with everything.”
    He then pays the vendor and asks for change. The vendor says, “change comes from within.”

    Re Seneca: Yeah, smart guy but he didn’t walk the walk. He preached simplicity and lived lavishly. He inveighed against flattery and flattered shamelessly. When Seneca was pressed by Nero to commit suicide, his wife asked that she die with him. He said ok. They slashed their wrist in unison.

    Re Woolf. It is must read for all young women. If you’re a man, you get both sound advice and a taste for how women must re-interpret writings by male authors who tend to skew their work towards men. A Room of One’s Own is addressed to women, but equally relevant to both sexes: that you can’t really be yourself until you are sufficiently independent-not only in a financial sense, but in the sense of being freed from societal and cultural restraint.

  31. Molesworth says:

    Author wrote:
    I believe the greatest need in the Business/Finance section of book stores is the Books to Read Before You Read the Finance Book section. Outside of Wall Street, the purpose of money is not to make more money; it is to serve a non-financial purpose. Therefore it is philosophy that guides finance: Life is not about making money; money is about making a life.

    My third book: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.
    It started as travelogue, turned into a comedy with musings like,
    “We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can’t do without.”

    “Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. ”

    “I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.”

  32. armbar magoo says:

    “The Power of One”, by Bryce Courtenay. Like a 20th century Huckleberry Finn set in Africa. How to pursue a life goal! Some content not the best for younger readers.
    “Monsoon”, by Robert Kaplan. History, Geography, and future Geopolitics at its best.

  33. Kent Thune says:

    Outstanding! Thanks for the suggestions. I will save this link and expand my “wish list” to improve upon my library. Barry’s readers never disappoint! Cheers…

    “The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.” ~ Rene Descartes

  34. Robert M says:

    Autobiography of Malcolm X; Malcolm X
    Roots; Alex Haley
    Innumeracy; John Allen Paulos
    Complete works of Shakespeare
    Complete works of William Blake; English Romantic