This week I have Stuart Lutz on the blog talking about the most influential book that he has read.
Lutz’s interests in history and writing come together in The Last Leaf, an oral history book featuring the stories of almost forty survivors and eyewitnesses to historically important events. Lutz is the only person to have interviewed the last three Civil War widows (the last one died in 2008), but The Last Leaf also features the last American World War I soldier, the final living person to have flown with Amelia Earhart, the final pitcher to give up a home run to Babe Ruth in his historic 1927 season (when Ruth hit sixty home runs), the last suffragette, the final Medal of Honor winner for heroism on Pearl Harbor Day, the last person to have made design contributions to the ENIAC (the first electronic, programmable computer), the final Iwo Jima flag raiser, the last survivor of the sunken Lusitania, the final Harry Houdini stage hand, and the last employees of Thomas Edison and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Each chapter blends the narrative of the “Last Leaves” with historical background so readers can understand what occurred and the long-term importance of each event.
Lutz owns Stuart Lutz Historic Documents, Inc., a firm that sells rare letters and manuscripts (www.HistoryDocs.com). He has written for American Heritage and Civil War Times Illustrated, and appeared on National Public Radio. He has a B.A. in American History from Johns Hopkins.
My Most Influential Book
By Stuart Lutz
About fifteen years ago, I lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Not only is it one of the country’s wealthiest counties, it is one of the showiest too. Everyone, it seemed to me, owned a luxury car, took exotic vacations, and shopped at the local boutiques. And frugal me was driving an old Mitsubishi Colt with 140,000 miles that required bi-monthly repairs, and living in a small apartment in a woman’s subdivided house. It was easy to wonder what I was doing wrong.
I mentioned this conundrum to my uncle, who was then a top executive for one of the country’s most prestigious financial firms. “Most Americans,” he explained to me, “are so far in credit card debt that they will never get out, or they two weeks away from living on the street [his forecast is being proven by today’s foreclosure crisis].” I was momentarily puzzled by what he said, and I responded with, “Perhaps for the little guy, but these people who drive Mercedes, they can’t be two weeks away from foreclosure.” “They frequently are,” he replied. “People who make big money usually spend big money. Or they skip contributing to their retirement funds so that they have no accumulated wealth. I read recently that the average luxury car buyer only makes something like forty or fifty thousand dollars a year. It’s hard to get ahead financially when the price of your car equals your annual salary.”
Soon thereafter, I received a package from my uncle containing The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William D. Danko. The book is an academic, yet easily readable, study of people who have at least a million dollars in wealth, excluding the value of their homes. The people profiled include business owners worth seven figures, or others who have frugally saved over a million dollars in their retirement accounts. Stanley and Danko emphasize several characteristics the millionaires generally share, including frugality, a desire for financial independence, self-employment, and an emphasis on saving, investing, and budgeting. The authors define “underaccumulators of wealth” and “prodigious accumulators of wealth,” and introduced me to one of my favorite phrases, “big hat, no cattle.”
The Millionaire Next Door is the most influential book I have read in the past two decades for a few reasons. First, it is my desire to be financially independent. Recent news stories state that the Social Security trust will be exhausted in 2037, about the time I can first collect. If there is not going to be Social Security, then I need to be a “prodigious accumulator of wealth” to retire.
Second, the book showed that the frugality that I learned from my parents is the lifestyle that I want to have. I am just not a Mercedes or BMW person. Instead, I am delighted to drive my seven-year old Toyota with 146,000 miles or my fifteen year old Acura with 206,000 clicks; I prefer them to the slavery of new car payments or a lease. Yet my frugality does not mean all self-denial; my wife and I have twice traveled to Hawaii and Ireland; we just do it in the off-season when rates are cheaper.
I re-read The Millionaire Next Door at least once a year for continued inspiration. But my page-flipping is only the theoretical. As for the actual practice of becoming financially independent, I think of the book once a month when I deposit my hard-earned, hard-saved check into my retirement accounts.
To conclude, I own a business that buys and sells historic documents and letters. I have a client who made a fortune on Wall Street and collects papers related to early financial history. About fifteen years ago, he bought at auction one of the first known American stock certificates for almost $40,000. Subsequently, I bought the letter that should accompany the aforementioned stock, and I sold it to him for nearly $10,000. I met this gentleman at a New England hotel to show him the letter. When we finished our business, we walked out to the parking lot, and he got into a beat-up Buick that looked like it belonged in the local demolition derby. Yet he had spent nearly $50,000 on two sheets of paper. He was living proof of the millionaire next door.
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In this unique oral history book, author and historic document specialist Stuart Lutz records the stories told to him personally by people who witnessed many of history's most famous events. Among many others, Lutz interviewed:
-the final three Civil War widows (one Union and two Confederate)
-the final pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth
-the last suffragette
-the last living person to fly with Amelia Earhart
-the final American World War I soldier
-the last surviving employees of Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Harry Houdini.
The wide-ranging stories involve humor (the 1920 Olympic medalist who stole the original Olympic flag), tragedy (the last survivor of the 1915 Lusitania sinking), heroism (the final Medal of Honor recipient for actions on Pearl Harbor Day), and eyewitnesses to great events (one of the last scientists at the first nuclear chain reaction, and the final Iwo Jima flag raiser).
In more than three-dozen chapters, Lutz blends background information in a lively narrative with the words of the interviewees, so that readers not familiar with the historical episodes described can understand what occurred and the long-term significance of the events.
Buy it at Amazon
Buy it at IndieBound
But it at Powells