Steven M. Kerstein, 33, is not an avid reader, except when gobbling up technical magazines and computer books that help him with his job.
But last month, Mr. Kerstein, who tends computers for DKB Financial Products, a Japanese derivatives trading shop, discovered a page-turner he couldn't resist: "Morgan: American Financier."
"This book grabbed me," said Mr. Kerstein, who is still working through the 796-page tome.
Many Americans, like Mr. Kerstein, are gulping down books related to finance, putting several on the nation's best seller lists. Everyone from students to chief executive officers is reading them, according to reader reviews on amazon.com's Web site.
One of those reviewers, Daniel White, a London businessman, describes himself as a "financial book fanatic." To him, corporate history books are not "just tomes of boring financial data but a view of our culture and society."
"While stories of private lives spice up these books, people are really reading them because they are interested in the origins of the institutions which have played so much of a part in world affairs," Mr. White said.
Ron Chernow, who wrote "The House of Morgan" in the early 1990s attributed these books' new popularity to changes in the industry.
"Investment bankers used to be discreet," he said, "and they cultivated a low profile with a very don't-call-us-we'll-call-you attitude. Now these same firms are courting the small investors who have become indispensable to their futures. Discretion has been replaced by self-promotion and high- pressure salesmanship. Naturally, people would be interested in a world that once excluded them."
Indeed, some of the books are anything but discreet - they are show all and tell all. "Adding a touch of scandal to financial subjects never hurts, said Frank Partnoy, author of "F.I.A.S.C.O: Blood in the Water of Wall Street," one of the best sellers. "The nuts and bolts of banking is boring," he said. "People are trying to find ways to make it interesting for the masses."
The genre's popularity has emerged because Americans have become much more interested in wealth, said Jean Strouse, who wrote "Morgan."
"When I graduated from college 20 years ago, people were interested in civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Watergate," said Ms. Strouse. "But because many people have money in the stock market, there is an expanded perception of how crucial financial institutions and markets are to our lives."
"Morgan," published in April, made four best seller lists: The New York Times' business and extended lists, Business Week, and the Independent Booksellers Association list.
Other recent books with financial themes also have become best sellers.
"Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success" is a sympathetic account of the investment bank's history. It made the business best seller lists of The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and The New York Times.
"F.I.A.S.C.O." is the tale of how Morgan Stanley & Co. (now Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.) allegedly deceived clients buying derivatives. Much of the Partnoy book describes frat-boy behavior among traders at Morgan Stanley and elsewhere. In one anecdote, a mortgage trader at First Boston Corp. (now Credit Suisse First Boston) offered $500 to a female sales assistant to eat a pickle covered with hand lotion. The woman took the challenge and vomited on the trading floor.
Two weeks before "F.I.A.S.C.O." hit the bookstores, Morgan Stanley told clients that the book was filled with inaccuracies. The Wall Street Journal picked up the story.
"You couldn't ask for better publicity," Mr. Partnoy said in a recent interview. "Morgan Stanley could not have handled it worse. They guaranteed it would be a best seller."
And it was. "F.I.A.S.C.O." made The New York Times and Business Week best seller lists.
Though Mr. Partnoy's book is particularly vivid, others also take candid looks into the personal and sex lives of their subjects-which probably accounts for a large part of their popularity.
"Morgan," the most scholarly of the three recent best sellers, delves deeply into J.P.'s lusts and loves. Unlike other biographies of Morgan, which depict him merely as a robber baron, Ms. Strouse's book also looks at him as a man.
She writes about his loveless marriage, his mistresses, and his warm relationships with his daughters. "I looked at the women in his life," said Ms. Strouse. "They tell the reader who he was. I didn't slight the financial stuff, but I wanted to flesh him out, make him human."
Readers will find little about personal dalliances in Lisa Endlich's book about Goldman Sachs. It is a tame portrayal of the firm's discreet arrogance and of a culture that suppresses individuality. It has the tone of a book "authorized" by its subject.
Yet it attracted a large readership by offering a peek into the Goldman world by a former insider. Ms. Endlich traded foreign exchange for the firm from 1985 to 1989.
Despite the lack of sex and scandal, publishers fought for rights to the book, said Geri Thoma, Ms. Endlich's agent. "As many as seven publishers bid on it," she said. "You're doing well if just two or three publishers bid on a book."
"So many have tried to write this book and had not been able to get the story," said Ms. Thoma. "Lisa had extraordinary access, and she was able to write it with an insider point of view."
Ms. Endlich said, "Investment banking makes such good material, and it's an exciting world that most people don't get to see."
Also, she thinks sales of the book were helped when Goldman went public in May.
Despite their popularity, none of these books sells nearly as many copies as nonbusiness best sellers. No data are available for how many books have been sold, and each best seller list has its own, usually complex, formula for deciding which books should be included.
One fact is known: Business books, of which banking books are a tiny subset, are the laggards of the book industry. Business books brought in only $17.8 million of sales in 1997, or 1.7% of the $1 billion book market, according to the most recent book purchasing survey from the American Booksellers Association.
Most best seller lists are dominated by personal finance books (how to make more money), motivational books (how to motivate yourself to make more money), or management guides (how to get others to make money for you).
The popularity of books about the financial world has its ups and downs. Not since the late 1980s and early 1990s have books on investment banking made it so big.
These books go through "boom and bust" periods, said Mr. Partnoy, author of "F.I.A.S.C.O."
Sales of books on investment banking hit their peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, books such as "The Predators Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders" by Connie Bruck, Mr. Chernow's "The House of Morgan," "Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street," by Michael Lewis, and "Den of Thieves," by James B. Stewart leaped onto the best seller lists. But after 1992, even the glitziest financial books failed to be snapped up in big numbers.
Ms. Thoma attributed this downturn to a flood of "me-too" books after the initial successes. "People want a rest from a subject that's been around for a long time," she said.
The popular books have their critics as well.
Roy C. Smith, a professor of finance at New York University's Stern School of Business and the author of several scholarly banking books, is among the critics. "These people sold more copies with their one book than all the copies of my books put together," said Mr. Smith. "What sells is something juicy. Scholarly books are considered boring."
"How crummy," he continued. "Some of these books are not particularly good and then they vanish from the market. I don't want to write a book that's useless. I know this sounds like sour grapes, but it's true."
Walter Wriston, former chief executive officer of Citicorp (now Citigroup) and the subject of "Walter Wriston, Citibank, and the Rise and Fall of American Financial Supremacy" by Phillip L. Zweig, said, ruefully, "People today want to hear about how the chairman of X bank is keeping a young lady in a Park Avenue apartment. That's hot.
"The kind of banking book I want to see is about the dramatic change that banking and the economy have undergone in the last 30 years. That kind of book probably wouldn't be a best seller, but it would be good."