The most important thing that teachers can impart to their students is a desire to learn. Similarly, there’s a certain class of book that I think of–and evangelize–as "nonfiction for non-specialists." When successful these books tackle widely relevant subjects via more or less dramatic narrative, spun in language that’s unabashedly intended for a popular audience. (Recent blockbuster examples include Moneyball, Steve Jobs, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). The very best of these inspire a desire to find out more.
Enter David Wolman, a Portland-based journalist and contributing editor for Wired whose surprising bibliography illustrates just such eclectic curiosity. When I first came upon his work–via his Kindle Single, The Instigators–Wolman had already written books on the history of English spelling and the meaning of left-handedness. This year, he published The End of Money (print | Kindle). An Amazon Best Book of 2012 (#85 on our Top 100 list: Print editions | Kindle books), this fascinating book explores "the coming cashless society" through a cast of compelling characters that includes an end-times fundamentalist who views the growing obsolescence of cash as a sign of the coming rapture; an Icelandic artist whose claim to fame illustrates the complicated relationship between cash and nationalism; an American libertarian and coin-maker convicted on federal charges for the distribution of "Liberty" coins and Ron Paul dollars; and an Indian software engineer (self-billed as "the assassin of cash") whose firm is enabling digital payment methods that are lifting the living standards of thousands of poor New Delhi residents via their cell phones. Raising the stakes with a personal experiment, Wolman even goes (almost) a full year without using cash at all.
Readers need neither an advanced degree in economics nor even a basic understanding of currency markets to have a lot of fun with this book. If you’ve ever paid for a purchase in cash, you’ve got all the background you’ll need. "I suspected the book would resonate, but I didn’t anticipate such a loud and sustained response," Wolman tells Amazon. "Perhaps I should have. After all, the story of cash is enmeshed within the much broader story of money, the economy, and value itself."
Since the book was published in February, Wolman has stuck to the "money beat," tweeting gleefully about new developments in digital money, the intrepid experiment known as the Eurozone, and the pubic outcries of breathless gold evangelists and hailers of economic Armageddon. "I haven’t yet grown bored with the topic–not by a long shot," Wolman admits, "so I’m keeping tabs on new technologies, reading chronicles of deliciously obscure nineteenth-century counterfeiters, and skimming behavioral economics papers. My next book, if I pull it off, will be another inquisitive, gonzo journey into a macro question of economics that hits every one of us smack in the wallet."
Meanwhile, The End of Money offers virtually everything there is to love about popular nonfiction, exploring a complex but widely relevant subject through an entertaining adventure into our weird, wonderful world. Come with your curiosity in tow; leave simultaneously sated and hungry for more. Class dismissed.