The Secrets of American Wealth

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Rich Like Them: My Door-To-Door Search for the Secrets of Wealth in America's Richest Neighborhoods
Ryan D'Agostino
Little, Brown; 256 pages

The Gist:

Journalist Ryan D'Agostino traveled to some of the nation's richest zip codes — places like Beverly Hills, Palm Springs, and Wesport, Connecticut — to attempt to discover the secrets of wealth. He utilized a very simple technique; he knocked on doors of expensive looking homes and asked the owners how they got where they are today. As D'Agostino writes, "If I knocked on enough doors in enough preposterously rich enclaves, I might gather enough insight and guidance to help me...understand how to get rich; rich like them. Simple as that." (See pictures of expensive things that money can buy.)

Highlight Reel:

1. On learning how to open your eyes to the opportunities around you: "All around us, every day, are opportunities to make associations that others can't see. An idea for a new way to sell a product. A bit of creative networking — calling on an old friend who, lo and behold, turns out to have a connection that could benefit you in ways you'd never thought of before. The trick is to see all your options and then, once in a while, when you think you've discovered an in, make a move."

2. On Charles Marsala, mayor of Atherton, California, the wealthiest zip code in America: "We moved our conversation into the main house, and as we talked Marsala walked me down a hall of famous photographs, many of them of his apparently legendary backyard parties, often showing guests as giant chess pieces. One shindig had a Venetian theme, complete with a gondola, which, in one photo, was being navigated in the pool by the largest shareholder of General Electric. 'He collects army tanks,' Marsala said, shaking his head and chuckling, as if the man collected scrimshaw or hermit crabs. 'He has about two hundred and fifty of them, right up the street.'"

3. On money: "We are not supposed to want money. Materialism, we learn at a young age, is frowned upon. This attitude does not seem altogether compatible with a system of capitalism, but as a code to live by it is probably — and theoretically — an admirable way to go: do not do anything solely for money, and do not covet material goods for their own sake...Money can't buy happiness, they say, but if sailing a boat makes you happy, you need to be able to buy, or at least rent, a boat."

The Lowdown:

The new year is upon us. Break out the optimism, the resolutions and the thinly-veiled self-help books. There are some, like Henry Alford's How To Live that hide their chicken-soup soul within the well-structured tale of a fruitful personal journey. Then there are those such as Rich Like Them, whose vigorous attempts to shake off the label ("It's not what you think of as a traditional self-help book...I chose instead to look at the context of these lives, to tell people's stories"), just end up making the author sound slightly embarrassed by his task. Not that he should be. There's plenty of interesting stories among the more than 50 presented in the book, but it's just not clear what they amount to. Short and lacking depth (most of the tales average four pages or so), the advice offered is fairly shallow: pay attention to opportunity, be lucky, be obsessive, be humble, be patient (yet take risks). Okay.

The most fascinating thing about this book, however, is not the advice, most of which can be found in any number of airport newsstand business tomes. It's what's not there. To release such a thing at the height of our current financial crisis — well, D'Agostino must either be smacking himself in the face with regret or clinching his fists and yelling "Yes!" (given that he advises several times to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities, it's probably the latter). Full of real-estate developers, venture capitalists and tech mavens, Rich Like Them fills the reader first with a sense of schadenfreude. After that passes, a sad-ish feeling of, "I wonder what happened to all those rich folk" settles in. Do they still have those nice houses whose doors D'Agostino knocked on, whose foyers he walked into, whose waterfront views he reveled in? What has happened to those people? That's a book waiting to be written.

The Verdict: Skim

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