The best books on economic history

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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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.


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

By Karl Polanyi

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.


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Tristram Shandy

By Laurence Sterne

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; 


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

By Albert O. Hirschman

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.


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

By David S. Landes

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.


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