The best history books on cities, their trades, and world trade

Yasuhiro Makimura Author Of Yokohama and the Silk Trade: How Eastern Japan Became the Primary Economic Region of Japan, 1843-1893
By Yasuhiro Makimura

Who am I?

One of the oldest questions is: why are some countries rich and some countries poor? Adam Smith famously answered that it was the division of labor (specialization) and trade in his book The Wealth of Nations. The more you study trade, however, the more complicated the answer becomes. I have been grappling with this question since the 1990s, as a student, and I still do not have a simple answer like Adam Smith. However, I think I have come up with a framework to understand how the economic history of the world developed and I have been teaching that global history in college as a professor since the 2010s.

I wrote...

Yokohama and the Silk Trade: How Eastern Japan Became the Primary Economic Region of Japan, 1843-1893

By Yasuhiro Makimura,

Book cover of Yokohama and the Silk Trade: How Eastern Japan Became the Primary Economic Region of Japan, 1843-1893

What is my book about?

This study provides a broad political and economic examination of the impact of the silk trade on nineteenth-century Japan. It analyzes the economic role of Japan’s eastern interior region and that of the port of Yokohama. It argues that the economic development in this period laid the foundations for Japan’s prewar industrial development in the late nineteenth century and was largely responsible for the integration of Japan into the global economy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Why did I love this book?

This classic work on economic geography by William Cronon demonstrates how the city of Chicago and the American West developed together. It is a history of the relationship Chicago had with the rest of America in the nineteenth century by looking at the flow of grain, lumber, and meat. The key role of the railroads is also featured as well.

By William Cronon,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Nature's Metropolis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this groundbreaking work, William Cronon gives us an environmental perspective on the history of nineteenth-century America. By exploring the ecological and economic changes that made Chicago America's most dynamic city and the Great West its hinterland, Mr. Cronon opens a new window onto our national past. This is the story of city and country becoming ever more tightly bound in a system so powerful that it reshaped the American landscape and transformed American culture. The world that emerged is our own.

Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize

Book cover of From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfavolume 17

Why did I love this book?

This book by David Aslanian features the Armenian merchants of the New Julfa district of the city of Isfahan in modern-day Iran. They conducted long-distance trade between India and Europe and competed against some of the giant corporations of the day such as the Dutch East India Company. The experts of the old silk road trade competed against the new maritime trades well into the nineteenth century.

By Sebouh Aslanian,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Drawing on a rich trove of documents, including correspondence not seen for 300 years, this study explores the emergence and growth of a remarkable global trade network operated by Armenian silk merchants from a small outpost in the Persian Empire. Based in New Julfa, Isfahan, in what is now Iran, these merchants operated a network of commercial settlements that stretched from London and Amsterdam to Manila and Acapulco. The New Julfan Armenians were the only Eurasian community that was able to operate simultaneously and successfully in all the major empires of the early modern world--both land-based Asian empires and the…

Book cover of The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

Why did I love this book?

Taking us away from cities, this book will set your eyes on how these cities and their trades fit within a global framework. Kenneth Pomeranz argues that the key was the Americas which allowed Europe to engage in further specialization, and the fortunate location of coal in Britain, the country that started the industrial revolution. This industrial revolution was the key difference that led to the dominance of the West in global affairs.

By Kenneth Pomeranz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Great Divergence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Great Divergence brings new insight to one of the classic questions of history: Why did sustained industrial growth begin in Northwest Europe, despite surprising similarities between advanced areas of Europe and East Asia? As Ken Pomeranz shows, as recently as 1750, parallels between these two parts of the world were very high in life expectancy, consumption, product and factor markets, and the strategies of households. Perhaps most surprisingly, Pomeranz demonstrates that the Chinese and Japanese cores were no worse off ecologically than Western Europe. Core areas throughout the eighteenth-century Old World faced comparable local shortages of land-intensive products, shortages…

Book cover of Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850

Why did I love this book?

Most people think Europe grew rich through industrialization and free trade. What they don’t realize is that this industrialization was initially started because of protectionism. Prasannan Parthasarathi shows how Britain banned the import of Indian cotton cloth, known as Calico, and developed its own industry. The free trade happened only after Britain succeeded in industrializing.

By Prasannan Parthasarathi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not provides a striking new answer to the classic question of why Europe industrialised from the late eighteenth century and Asia did not. Drawing significantly from the case of India, Prasannan Parthasarathi shows that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the advanced regions of Europe and Asia were more alike than different, both characterized by sophisticated and growing economies. Their subsequent divergence can be attributed to different competitive and ecological pressures that in turn produced varied state policies and economic outcomes. This account breaks with conventional views, which hold that divergence occurred because…

Book cover of ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age

Why did I love this book?

In ReOrient, A.G. Frank argues that this current situation in which the West is at the center of the world is a mere blip in terms of global history. Historically Asia was always the richer part of the globe and once again, in the near future, Asia will be the richest part of the globe again.

By Andre Gunder Frank,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked ReOrient as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Andre Gunder Frank asks us to re-orient our views away from Eurocentrism - to see the rise of the West as a mere blip in what was, and is again becoming, an Asia-centered world. In a bold challenge to received historiography and social theory he turns on its head the world according to Marx, Weber, and other theorists, including Polanyi, Rostow, Braudel, and Wallerstein. Frank explains the Rise of the West in world economic and demographic terms that relate it in a single historical sweep to the decline of the East around 1800. European states, he says, used the silver…

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