by Samuel Smiles
various editions in hardcover, paperback, and kindle (free version) from Amazon
Imagine yourself in the time of Dickens. Factories are belching smoke and toxins into the air. Folks are working for peanuts in the sweatshops. There are workhouses for the poor, and children working as pickpockets just to survive. These are the years that Samuel Smiles lived through. If you've ever seen "A Christmas Carol" you might remember the scene where those working to help the poor ask Scrooge for a donation (which, of course, he refuses). One of them might have been Samuel Smiles, because he was in the business of helping the poor. He is credited with creating some of the world's first self-help books, of which Thrift (first printed in 1875, or 78 depending on who you ask), in my opinion, is one of the best.
As you would expect, the language seems really archaic to us now, but I found this book fascinating because human beings have changed a whole lot less that we might think from the days of the Industrial Revolution. Much of what he writes about could just as well have appeared in the news this morning:
(location 3958 Kindle edition)
"True benevolence does not consist in giving money. Nor can charitable donations, given indiscriminately to the poor, have any other effect than to sap the foundations of self-respect and break down the very outworks of virtue itself. There are many forms of benevolence which create the very evils they are intended to cure, and encourage the poorer classes in the habit of dependence upon the charity of others to the neglect of those far healthier means of social well-being which lie within their own reach."
Smiles' work with the poor seems somehow contemporary. Programs to help folks who are struggling to manage their money, handle their debts, and find ways to cope in a nasty economy, parallel in many ways the tools (many of them, tools developed between the ears) Smiles suggested for people way back then.
He has a number of things to say about what money is for (and it's not just the obvious) what it does to the person who has too much of it, how it can run (or ruin) your life.
Human motivations and responses were clearly the same then as they are now, and somehow I find this link to the past reassuring. We've been down this road before, and we've learned (and then unlearned, apparently) difficult lessons the hard way. This book teaches us that the old adage that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. We can learn from this book, and the others in his series ("Self Help," and "Character" in particular) in spite of the fact that there are some glaring surprises (the view of women in the 19th century was hardly hopeful to those of us who value careers and independence, but might feel very heartening to many stay-at-home moms).
The best part (for those who are really thrifty) is that the Kindle version is available for free.