Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
What Senator Bernie Sanders calls the “billionaire class” has had a profound impact on American society—and, indeed, on the world at large. Still, I was surprised to learn that so many of the books I’ve reviewed involve billionaires playing instrumental roles. Yes, they’ve built huge and important businesses. But their influence far surpasses that of the products and services they’ve brought to us. In some cases, by funding action taken by others. But often getting their hands dirty, actively shaping the course of affairs. They’ve shifted the center of gravity in American politics sharply to the right. Distorted our tax code to benefit themselves and the giant corporations so many of them control. And greatly exacerbated inequality in wealth and income, leaving tens of millions to pick up the crumbs left as they snap up a rising share of the country’s financial assets.
How many billionaires are there?
You might wonder how many billionaires there are, as I did once upon a time. According to Forbes magazine, the most reliable source on the world’s billionaires, there were 2,640 of them as of May 2023. But there’s inequality among billionaires, too. Just the eight richest of them own as much as the poorest half of humanity, according to a 2017 study by Oxfam International. Others—pikers by comparison—struggle along with a mere one or two billion, barely enough to buy a luxury yacht and two or three palatial mansions.
More than one-quarter (756) of the world’s billionaires live in the United States as of 2023. Together, these 756 ultra-wealthy individuals possess more wealth than the bottom half of US households ($4.5 trillion and $4.1 trillion respectively). But their money itself doesn’t account for the influence they wield. Because the exalted position they hold in society, and the connections available to them at the touch of an assistant’s smartphone, give them power. Sometimes, seemingly unlimited power.
Here, then, I’m listing the nearly two dozen books about billionaires that I’ve read and reviewed. I’ve created two lists, one including nonfiction, the other limited to novels about billionaires. Within each list, the titles appear in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
Nonfiction books about billionaires
The books that follow are the work of historians, investigative journalists, pundits, and scholars. As you can see, I’ve rated nearly all of them very highly—because they cast light on the outsized influence of this tiny group of people.
Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Hollywood Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy by Rachel Abrams and James B. Stewart (2023) 416 pages ★★★★★—Drama in a real-life version of “Succession”
The Lords of Creation: The History of America’s 1 Percent by Frederick Lewis Allen (1935) 442 pages ★★★★☆—Why the Great Recession happened—and the Great Depression before it
The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan (2017) 352 pages ★★★★☆—Is philanthropy good for America?
The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree (2018) 386 pages ★★★★★—A vivid portrait of India’s new Gilded Age and the billionaires at its center
The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport (2018) 321 pages ★★★★★—Four billionaires and humanity’s future in the cosmos
Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties by David de Jong (2022) 400 pages ★★★★★—The Nazi war profiteers who exploited slave labor
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giriharadas (2018) 304 pages ★★★★☆—Are tech billionaires and hedge-fund managers changing the world for the better?
Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World by Peter S. Goodman (2022) 286 pages ★★★★☆—The men behind the world’s widening economic inequality
Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green (2017) 288 pages ★★★★☆—How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson (2023) 688 pages ★★★★☆—A revealing new biography of Elon Musk
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer (2016) 464 pages ★★★★★—How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (2017) 368 pages ★★★★★—Historical perspective on “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy”
Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live—and How their Wealth Harms Us All by Michael Mechanic (2021) 415 pages ★★★★★—The curious lives of the rich and not-so-famous
The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley by Jimmy Soni (2022) 496 pages ★★★★☆—A group biography of the PayPal mafia
Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost (2012) 297 pages ★★★★★—Tea Party politics may not be what you think
The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman (2014) 578 pages ★★★★★—Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America
For Blood and Money: Billionaires, Biotech, and the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug by Nathan Vardi (2023) 288 pages ★★★★★—The drama behind two biotech startups
Novels about billionaires
Truth to tell, the nonfiction books listed above offer far more insight about billionaires than any novel I’ve read to date. Most of the titles that follow in the list below are science fiction or other genre fiction in which the authors seem to feature billionaires simply because they provide the means to resources needed to make their stories work. The exception is Birnam Wood, a novel set in the author’s New Zealand that spotlights a Silicon Valley billionaire who has moved there, much to the displeasure of many local people.
The Wolves (John Wells #10) by Alex Berenson (2016) 397 pages ★★★☆☆—Spies, a billionaire, and a supermodel in Hong Kong and Macao
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (2023) 432 pages ★★★★★—A billionaire survivalist meets environmental activists
The Catch (Slough House #9) by Mick Herron (2020) 81 pages ★★★★★—About that billionaire who committed suicide in prison
Red London (Red Widow #2) by Alma Katsu (2023) 352 pages ★★★★★—A joint MI6-CIA operation targets Russian oligarchs in London
The Days to Come (Peter Rena #4) by Tom Rosenstiel (2021) 368 pages ★★★★☆—This new President tries to address climate change
A House Between Earth and the Moon by Rebecca Scherm (2022) 400 pages ★★★★☆—When billionaires flee to a private space station
Ice (Ice Trilogy #1 of 3) by Kevin Tinto (2015) 368 pages ★★★★★—Digging out the secret of the Anasazi
Ice Genesis (Ice Trilogy #2 of 3) by Kevin Tinto (2018) 334 pages ★★★★☆—The secret of the Anasazi continues to unfold
Mammoth by John Varley (2005) 376 pages ★★★★★—A time travel tale about wooly mammoths and an eccentric billionaire
For related reading
Forbes magazine ranks the wealth of all the world’s billionaires—currently 2,640—and displays the result on a site called Real-Time Billionaires. The data is constantly updated, so the rankings change from day to day. At the moment I’m posting, eight of the world’s top ten billionaires are American high-tech entrepreneurs. Two of the two others (Warren Buffett) is also American, with a French family rounding out the ten.
You might also care to check out:
- Good books about finance and economics
- Top 20 popular books for understanding American history
- Top 10 nonfiction books about politics
- Good books about economic inequality
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