Man reading book on a balcony © knape, Getty Images

Can you read yourself rich?

Bill Gates, one of the world's richest men, set the book world alight last month when he recommended aspiring business leaders open a copy of "Business Adventures," a collection of articles written in the 1960s by the late New Yorker writer John Brooks. (Bill Gates is founder, technology advisor and board member of Microsoft, which owns and publishes MSN Money.)

Gates said "Business Adventures" had been his favorite business book for 20 years, since he was first given a copy by fellow tycoon Warren Buffett, who also rates it his favorite business book. Out of print, it shot up the best-seller charts within hours. It is being rereleased in print format and is already available electronically. Those who can't wait 'til September for a print copy can try to find a used one online. One enterprising seller offered his copy for . . . $2,000.

It is an underreported secret that, even in an age of spreadsheets and quants, the most successful hedge-fund managers and investors are typically avid readers of history and literature. Financial consultant Bennett Goodspeed argued in "The Tao Jones Averages" 30 years ago that successful investors need to use the arts-and-literature right side of their brain as well as the math-and-science left side.

Brooks's classic collection isn't the only summer reading for those hoping to brush up their money smarts. Fred Schwed's tongue-in-cheek book about Wall Street and investing, "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" reads as if it were written last year, rather than in 1940, in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed. It is accessible to those who know nothing whatsoever about investing and finance: Few introductions are as easy to follow, and none as entertaining.

Anyone living through a stock-market boom that seems likely to go on forever should pick up a copy of John Brooks's previous books, "Once in Golconda" and "The Go-Go Years." They tell the fascinating stories of the Wall Street booms of the 1920s and 1960s, and the crashes that followed.

"Reminiscences of a Stock Operator" by Edwin Lefevre, first published in the 1920s, is considered a classic by Wall Street insiders. It tells the true story of legendary trader Jesse Livermore, who made and lost several fortunes on the Street over the course of half a century.

Among the many lessons relevant to private investors today: After decades of active trading, Livermore realized that only a fool tries to fight the market, and that the biggest money is often made by long-term investing. "Money is made by sitting, not trading," he said.

Available for free online is the Victorian classic "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" by Charles Mackay, the first description of the original stock-market "bubbles" -- in 17th-century Holland and the South Sea Bubble in 18th-century London. If you think great intelligence is enough to make a fortune in stocks, reflect that among those badly burned by the collapse of the South Sea Bubble was Sir Isaac Newton. Are you smarter than him?

And then there are the lessons to be drawn from the deep, deep well of the Bible. While anyone's reading of the Old and New Testaments will naturally be dominated by spiritual concerns, you can also find the simple, prosaic -- and humorous.

For example, it's impossible to read the story of King Ahab and his 400 "false prophets" in the first Book of the Kings without thinking of today's armies of consultants and advisers, including the analysts on Wall Street. Ahab's prophets thrived by telling the king what he wanted to hear -- advice that leads to his doom. The only prophet who tells him the unvarnished truth, Micaiah, ends up thrown in prison.

Three thousand years later, in 2010, the International Monetary Fund tried to work out why its brilliant economists had completely failed to predict the biggest financial crisis in 70 years. Its conclusion: Everyone was under pressure to be optimistic. Those who warned about the dangers were sidelined or silenced. Everyone went along to get along.

As those who read are apt to learn, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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