A wealth of books on millionaires I made my first million in Poland, back in 1992. All I had to do was buy a hundred dollars worth of zloty at the currency exchange. A few years later in Romania, as the leu fell victim to hyperinflation, it took not a Franklin but a mere Grant for me to re-enter the millionaires' club.

The dirtiest little secret of American pop culture today is that a million U.S. dollars ain't all that much. It's worth more than a million of some play-money scrip from Eastern Europe, to be sure, but it's hardly worth the heavy breathing you hear these days about millionaires.

A sudden million can change the life of some smart-aleck who wins it on Regis Philbin's omnipresent game show. But a slow million is simply what an average middle-aged Jane and Joe today had better hope they save up in net worth before they retire. General inflation, rising health care costs, and lengthening life- spans could easily turn a million into a bare-minimum nest egg not too many years from now.

None of which is to cast aspersions on the flock of millionaire books in recent years. Several of them have contributed to a growing savvy among the general public about how to behave financially. The 1996 blockbuster The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko (Longstreet Press, $22, 1563523302) counseled old-fashioned thrift, patience, and self-denial. Those themes recur in aspirational guidebooks like last October's How to Become a Millionaire: A Straightfor- ward Approach to Accumulating Personal Wealth by Mark L. Alch (Longstreet Press, $20, 1563526069) and Charles B. Carlson's recently released Eight Steps to Seven Figures: The Investment Strategies of Everyday Millionaires and How You Can Become Wealthy Too (Bantam Doubleday Dell, $24.95, 0385497318).

A new crop of millionaire books, though, is more apt to seek out the psychological basis for the way people act as they pursue riches whether their actions take the form of upstanding corporate citizenship, fecklessly acquisitive materialism, or something in-between. This month's featured titles approach the topic of wealth from different perspectives, but all four look beyond the bare behavioral facts that those in one tax bracket or another share to focus on the personality characteristics underlying economic conduct.

It's no surprise Thomas J. Stanley's follow-up to The Millionaire Next Door has already followed his 1996 book to the tops of bestseller lists, since The Millionaire Mind (Andrews McMeel, $26.95, 0740703579) builds on the keen observations of its predecessor. Stanley's earlier book offers the revelation that most of the rich people in our midst have unspectacular lifestyles but impressive abilities to remain focused on their goals. This new work reveals that the rich often have unspectacular minds and social orientations that their native intelligence, their educational achievements and conduct in private life generally don't veer too far from middle-American norms.

Stanley steers clear of the you, too, can be a millionaire! school of rah-rah personal finance coaching. Yet he does drive home a similar message: that a prep-school record of straight As and a summer calendar filled with cocktail engagements in the Hamptons are not prerequisites for plutocracy. He introduces us to millionaires and decamillionaires (Stanley draws a distinction between those with millions and tens of millions, acknowledging that a mere million is not what it used to be) whose minds are distinguished not by obvious brilliance or refinement but by clarity of purpose and self-discipline.

It's clear that Stanley's talent for distilling complex data into very readable narrative serves as the basis for the widespread popularity of this former professor's work. I'm sure he has plenty of readers from every age group, but this accessible and persuasive book may be best-suited as a graduation gift. Its lessons will be of most use to people who are still in a position to change how their minds work.

In The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators (Amacom, $27.95, 0814405703), Edwin A. Locke puts forth a feisty, combative, well-argued case that the egotism driving the super-rich is a good and virtuous force in society. I could not disagree more heartily with this thesis, but I don't write this column to foist my social theories on anyone. I have to express my respect for the vigor and strength of conviction that have gone into this book. I know people who will devour it like raw meat.

Locke is an acolyte of Ayn Rand, the late author whose musings on the virtue of selfishness energized a generation of business people as an antidote to the altruism of the 1960s left. The Prime Movers is the book Rand would have written had she lived to witness the federal antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft or the prosecution of Michael Milken. Locke is militantly libertarian in his outlook, and more importantly for the credibility of his stance he is staunchly consistent in applying libertarian principles to the business world as he sees it. Country-club conservatives might applaud his opposition to capital gains taxes and his affirmation that earning money is a moral achievement, but the ballroom would fall uncomfortably silent at his skewering of fat-cat execs flying in Lear jets at shareholder expense, companies discriminating against job applicants on the basis of race, and industries lobbying for corporate welfare.

The billionaire psyche, as defined by Locke (he, too, finds millionaire a paltry goal to aim for), combines integrity and vision with ruthlessness and unrelenting self-centeredness. I have to hope that Locke won't motivate too many readers to use his lionizing of alpha-male business behavior as an excuse to be petty tyrants in the workplace. But I have to admit: It's refreshing to encounter a rant as coherent as this one. Whatever your point of view, this book will quicken your pulse.

So will another April release, but in a very different way. Joel Anuff, with co-writer Gary Wolf, tells the tale of his enriching and entertaining descent into financial idiocy in Dumb Money: Adventures of a Day Trader. If you have ever been tempted I confess, I have succumbed a couple of times into buying a zillion shares of something with a name like NoEarnings.com at 41/2 and selling an hour later at 43/4, this book is your chance to revisit the combination of sick thrill and crushing fear you felt as you made your money the new-fashioned way. Dumb Money amply demonstrates the craziness and stupidity of get-rich-quick day trading schemes. It also makes day trading look like a lot of fun.

Don't blame Anuff and Wolf for sending a mixed message. This book just reflects its moment in history. Rational advisers like Thomas Stanley would extol the virtues of long-term investing to build a diversified portfolio of carefully chosen mutual funds, stocks, and bonds. Following such advice in recent years would have left you far behind the Joel Anuffs of the investing world. Virtue is not always rewarded. Vice is not always punished though the market can wield a terrible, swift sword when it comes time to mete out punishment to speculators. Just you wait.

Like this month's other books, Dumb Money is a morality tale. The business of trading stocks is arguably an amoral activity in itself, but Anuff and Wolf keep coming back to one figure who illustrates the horrific dark side of the day-trading anti-culture: Mark Barton, the Atlanta trader who was charged with going on a suburban killing spree in the summer of 1999 after racking up six-figure losses in the market. Anuff is convinced there are many more Bartons out there, well-armed and just waiting for the market correction that will send them over the edge. The book's parting words of financial advice: Learn how to duck. Sober up from the rollicking ride of Dumb Money with a book about the possible consequences of living in a fast-paced, high-stakes economy. Pick up The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt, by Teresa A. Sullivan, Elizabeth Warren and Jay Lawrence Westbrook (Yale University Press, $32.50, 0300079605), and see how the other half lives. If our country's millionaires seem surprisingly middle-class, so do the Americans who find themselves in bankruptcy court. This carefully researched investigation paints a disturbing portrait of a broad social stratum that has fallen deeply into debt in spite of or, more intriguingly, because of the unprecedented prosperity of recent years.

Here's where our millionaire fascination can take us. Certainly there are various misfortunes like medical bills and divorces that can lead to bankruptcy. However, an underlying reality runs through many of the sad stories in The Fragile Middle Class. People are willing to plunge deeply into credit card debt to in order to live the affluent life they think the millionaire next door is living. The irony borders on the tragic. Just as we realize how many real (and consistently debt-averse) millionaires live quietly among us in camouflage, we see that hordes of posers are ruining their financial lives as they put on millionaire airs.

Journalist E. Thomas Wood is product-development director for the Champs-Elysees.com family of European language-and-culture products.

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