George S Clason's 1926 The Richest Man in Babylon has currently 505828 ratings and 2277 reviews on GoodReads and millions of copies in print. Clason originally composed it in parts, as a series of short pamphlets dispensing practical financial advice. Long hailed as a classic for all generations, it has been of inspiration and value to many many people.
But why is it so good? Yes, it offers practical and helpful advice; but so do many other books and they aren't as well-read or so famous. Is it that the advice is radically different from other books? No. In fact, some would say Clason's advice is homely and commonsensical rather than especially insightful. So what made it stand out and become viral in an age of print?
Indeed, what makes this book still so special and so different from other books on similar themes?Quite simply, it's the power of story. Clason wasn't a brilliant financial advisor with insights unknown to others; he was a brilliant storyteller. This was his genius. The Richest Man in Babylon harnesses the potency of story.
We all of us love to hear and tell stories. If we didn't we wouldn't be human. Storytelling is primal.
Consider the following books:
- The Alchemist
- The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
- Harry Potter
- The Lord of the Rings
- Star Wars
- Star Trek
- Game of Thrones
These are all fables and myths for a generation that grew up without fables and myths. Ancient Greece is considered the cradle of modern education as well as the foundation of our modern world, but do you know what the Athenian youth studied at school? They studied the Homerian myths--the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. These stories were more than just stories; they taught morality and character too. The Romans had the stories of Romulus and Remus, and the legend of Aeneas. The Jews had the stories compiled in Genesis, the Exodus, and the Judges.
Here, in The Richest Man in Babylon, Clason creates a classic financial myth through careful and detailed elaboration of setting and skillful differentiation of character. He uses the powerful device of dialogue to share his ideas. Dialogue helps create character and thus personalises the teaching. Much of the dialogue uses question-and-answer (think Quora and Google) and throughout Clason understands how certain words and phrases trigger the reader's response to the text. Indeed, the storytelling techniques in this book are the same that drive our current social media and clickbait world.
In short, The Richest Man in Babylon is a story with power because of the way it is told. It works like the telling of a good joke and is likely to endure for a long time to come.
Kenneth Rowley 2017