The best books on economic history and testing assumptions

William Caferro Author Of Petrarch's War: Florence and the Black Death in Context
By William Caferro

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.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb,

Book cover of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Why 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.


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

By Karl Polanyi,

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

Why 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.


Tristram Shandy

By Laurence Sterne,

Book cover of Tristram Shandy

Why 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; 


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

By Albert O. Hirschman,

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

Why 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.


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

By David S. Landes,

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in economic history, poverty, and capitalism?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about economic history, poverty, and capitalism.

Economic History Explore 26 books about economic history
Poverty Explore 42 books about poverty
Capitalism Explore 74 books about capitalism

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Where Are the Customers' Yachts? Or a Good Hard Look at Wall Street, The Captured Economy, and The Value of Everything if you like this list.