Ben Tarnoff is off to an impressive start. He left college (Harvard) less than four years ago, and already he's given us this revealing read on a fascinating subject. You'll never look at the cash in your wallet the same way again.
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Ben Tarnoff: In the early days of the recent financial crisis, I remember reading about how millions of dollars had evaporated from balance sheets virtually overnight. The fragility of money, its immateriality, came as a real shock. I didn't understand how a sudden loss of confidence could make money literally disappear. It seemed bizarre that our economy relied so completely on faith to sustain value. At the time I was working for Lapham's Quarterly, helping to assemble an issue devoted to the history of money. The more I read about American finance, the more I realized that our problems weren't unique. Money was just as mercurial in the nineteenth century as it is today. And its value vanished just as abruptly, with results that were even more catastrophic. In the course of my reading I came across a book by Stephen Mihm called "A Nation of Counterfeiters." It introduced me to a whole new cast of characters, men and women who seemed eerily emblematic of America's financial spirit, both then and now. Together they provided a particularly interesting window onto the country's long, collision-filled path to prosperity. They manufactured fake money in a country where real money was often just as imaginary. They made something from nothing, the aspiration of countless Americans from the colonial era onwards. Through exploring their stories, I discovered a deeper continuity between the world our predecessors faced and the one we find ourselves in today.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
BT: I tried as often as possible to step back from the big-picture history and imagine what it felt like to be a person in the period I was writing about. In the 1850s, more than ten thousand kinds of paper money circulated in the United States. These were printed by a range of sources: state banks, corporations, unchartered institutions, and, of course, counterfeiters. As you can imagine, this made ordinary transactions pretty complex. If you were a shopkeeper, you would see a wide range of notes. You had to judge the authenticity of each bill. You also had to consider the relative values of the different paper, printed by institutions of varying reputations. An unregulated monetary landscape created endless headaches for people trying to exchange goods honestly. It wasn't until the Civil War that the federal government began to make meaningful interventions in the currency, paving the way for a national American paper dollar of the kind we take for granted today. What surprised me was how long it took for this to happen. For much of American history, people tolerated a financial system that ran counter to their self-interest and undermined the economic health of the nation as a whole.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
BT: As a kid I used to wonder how people could be born to do things, if the things you could do depended on when you were born. What if you were born to be an astronaut in the 18th century? I love writing and I can't imagine doing anything else. But it's hard to know how much of that is a product of circumstance. I've found that writing often involves making myself disappear, relinquishing control. Writing feels less like a choice and more like something that happens, like the weather. A lot of my time is spent waiting for it to happen.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
BT: I read very slowly. I also tend to read several things at a time, which means I'm terrible at finishing books. Recently I've been reading David Foster Wallace's essays, Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends by Patricia O'Toole. I've also been dipping into A New Literary History of America, which will probably take me ten years to finish but is an amazing book, the kind you'd want with you on a desert island.
JG: What's next for you?
BT: I'm from San Francisco and I've always wanted to find a way to write about it. Two years ago, Richard Rodriguez wrote an article for Harper's about the decline of American newspapers. He made the point that newspapers help create a sense of place. It's hard to imagine San Francisco without Herb Caen's columns, for example. If newspapers disappear, cities are in danger of losing their identity. I think history can help remedy that. History can reconnect people to where they live. It can make them feel like they belong to a particular place, with a unique past, present, and future. Hopefully my next book will do that.