The best books on economic history and testing assumptions

Who am I?

I began this veil as a mathematics major and a first generation college student. It was not easy and I had no great plans or ambitions. I was good at math. But as I read books like these, and many others, I changed my horizons altogether, saw a place for myself and a purpose previously lacking. Economic History resembles my first love of math, but with persons and human behavior included. The latter is endlessly fascinating, as is the tendency of “experts” to misread and make broad assumptions that I, ever skeptical, wish to test where I can. I like being engaged intellectually for its own sake, and, from books like Tristram Shandy, have always endeavored to take my work seriously, but not myself as a human being.


I wrote...

Petrarch's War: Florence and the Black Death in Context

By William Caferro,

Book cover of Petrarch's War: Florence and the Black Death in Context

What is my book about?

Petrarch’s War is a revisionist account of the city of Florence at the time of the Black Death. It argues for the importance of contradiction as a historical category of investigation in opposition to traditional scholarly studies that often minimize anomaly to tell a more “attractive” seamless story. The book shows how the famous “pacifist” Francis Petrarch actively endorsed war, with the support of his new friend, Giovanni Boccaccio, who was far more involved in Florentine politics than previously thought. It depicts a plague-ravaged workforce that employed bellringers, cooks, and low-level public workers for high-level international embassies and workers doing numerous jobs at once. It shows how the wages of many public workers, including those of famously greedy mercenaries, stayed the same, despite well-known increases for artisans.

The book shows the importance of interdisciplinarity in the study of history: how literary, economic, institutional, and even military events intersected in ways that are not self-evident and provide a still more “attractive” story when anomalies are included.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Black Swan

William Caferro Why did I love this book?

I read this book after I wrote Petrarch’s War, it was recommended to me by an economist. I felt like Taleb was speaking to me directly. It is clearly written and emphasized the role of Black Swan events in moving history and events along. As a professional historian, and especially an economic historian, I found his argument very compelling—and this was before COVID 19, the ultimate Black Swan. Taleb rails—in often humorous but always intelligent ways- about the limits of predicting events based on the past, and how the human mind is set up to do just that, but the reality is invariably far different. A powerful message.

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Black Swan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The most influential book of the past seventy-five years: a groundbreaking exploration of everything we know about what we don’t know, now with a new section called “On Robustness and Fragility.”

A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions…


Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

William Caferro Why did I love this book?

I recommend this book because it speaks to the importance of “embeddedness” as an economic concept: how one can only understand economic phenomena in their context. It exposes the limits of classical economics and explodes the myth of the (unfortunately) still very much accepted notion of the evolutionary nature of “free markets.” Polanyi isolates the phenomenon to a specific historical moment, which helped lead to fascism. I look at the world today and think of Polanyi.

By Karl Polanyi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.


Book cover of Tristram Shandy

William Caferro Why did I love this book?

It is a novel and a prolonged non-sequitur about life and worldly existence that speaks to me both as a person and as a professional. I read it in college and was astounded by the psychological depth and whimsy. “A cock and bull story, but one of the best…I have ever heard.” I think of that line from Sterne when I write my own work or read others; 

By Laurence Sterne,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

With a new Introduction by Cedric Watts, Research Professor of English, University of Sussex.

Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a huge literary paradox, for it is both a novel and an anti-novel. As a comic novel replete with bawdy humour and generous sentiments, it introduces us to a vivid group of memorable characters, variously eccentric, farcical and endearing. As an anti-novel, it is a deliberately tantalising and exuberantly egoistic work, ostentatiously digressive, involving the reader in the labyrinthine creation of a purported autobiography.

This mercurial eighteenth-century text thus anticipates modernism and postmodernism. Vibrant and…


Book cover of The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph

William Caferro Why did I love this book?

The book is, like the others I have recommended, decidedly distinctive and untraditional. It traces the convoluted history of capitalist thought prior to its advent (which is itself the subject of ceaseless debate). Reducing forces to “passion” and “order” made me look at a complicated subject in a new way.

By Albert O. Hirschman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Passions and the Interests as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this volume, Albert Hirschman reconstructs the intellectual climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to illuminate the intricate ideological transformation that occurred, wherein the pursuit of material interests--so long condemned as the deadly sin of avarice--was assigned the role of containing the unruly and destructive passions of man. Hirschman here offers a new interpretation for the rise of capitalism, one that emphasizes the continuities between old and new, in contrast to the assumption of a sharp break that is a common feature of both Marxian and Weberian thinking. Among the insights presented here is the ironical finding that capitalism…


Book cover of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor

William Caferro Why did I love this book?

The book is by an eminent Economists and is highly influential, answering the big question that all economic historians encounter—why did the West move to industrialize before the East. The book is unapologetically Euro-centric (as using the terms East and West suggests) and while I disagree with the thesis and the presentation of “facts” (a typical historian versus economist problem), I admire the clarity and forceful “I don’t care this is what happened” aspect. One can admire the forcefulness and intelligence of those they fundamentally disagree with.

By David S. Landes,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Wealth and Poverty of Nations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now that the old division of the world into the two power blocs of East and West has subsided, the great gap in wealth and health that separates North and South remains the single greatest problem and danger facing the world of the Third Millennium. The only challenge of comparable scope and difficulty is the threat of the environmental deterioration, and the two are intimately connected, indeed are one. David Landes argues that the North-South division is the great drama of our times, and that drama implies tension, passion, conflict and disappointment as well as happy outcomes. While Landes does…


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Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

Book cover of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

Michael Ruse Author Of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Teacher (professor) Author Darwin specialist Charles Dickens fanatic

Michael's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Why We Hate asks why a social animal like Homo sapiens shows such hostility to fellow species members. The invasion of the Ukraine by Russia? The antisemitism found on US campuses in the last year? The answer and solution lies in the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection.

Being social is biology’s way of ensuring survival and reproduction. With the coming of agriculture 10,000 years ago, new conditions – primarily much-increased population numbers – meant that sociality broke down as we battled for our share of much-reduced resources. But, as cultural change brought about our troubles, so culture offers prospects of a future where our social natures can emerge and thrive again.

Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

What is this book about?

An insightful and probing exploration of the contradiction between humans' enormous capacity for hatred and their evolutionary development as a social species

Why We Hate tackles a pressing issue of both longstanding interest and fresh relevance: why a social species like Homo sapiens should nevertheless be so hateful to itself. We go to war and are prejudiced against our fellow human beings. We discriminate on the basis of nationality, class, race, sexual orientation, religion, and gender. Why are humans at once so social and so hateful to each other? In this book, prominent philosopher Michael Ruse looks at scientific
understandings…


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Interested in economic history, capitalism, and poverty?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about economic history, capitalism, and poverty.

Economic History Explore 47 books about economic history
Capitalism Explore 167 books about capitalism
Poverty Explore 90 books about poverty