The best books on how to renew our divided societies

Who am I?

Our societies have become increasingly polarised, both materially and psychologically. Our youth are riven with anxieties. Most people expect their children’s lives to be worse than their own. This reflects a staggering failure across business, politics, and public institutions. Fortunately, an intellectual revolution has begun that is resetting our course: you can become part of it. My own life has straddled these increasingly bitter tensions. My parents left school at 12, and we lived in a city whose industry moved to Korea so the jobs evaporated. The lives of my relatives collapsed, but by fortune’s wheel, I became a professor at Oxford, Harvard, and Paris. We can reverse such cruel divides: I want to share what I have learned from my work and my life to show how we can do it.

I wrote...

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties

By Paul Collier,

Book cover of The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties

What is my book about?

From world-renowned economist Paul Collier, a candid diagnosis of the failures of capitalism and a pragmatic and realistic vision for how we can repair it.

Deep new rifts are tearing apart the fabric of the United States and other Western societies: thriving cities versus rural counties, the highly skilled elite versus the less educated, wealthy versus developing countries. As these divides deepen, we have lost the sense of ethical obligation to others that was crucial to the rise of post-war social democracy. So far these rifts have been answered only by the revivalist ideologies of populism and socialism, leading to the seismic upheavals of Trump, Brexit, and the return of the far-right in Germany. We have heard many critiques of capitalism but no one has laid out a realistic way to fix it, until now.

In a passionate and polemical book, celebrated economist Paul Collier outlines brilliantly original and ethical ways of healing these rifts--economic, social, and cultural--with the cool head of pragmatism, rather than the fervor of ideological revivalism. He reveals how he has personally lived across these three divides, moving from working-class Sheffield to hyper-competitive Oxford, and working between Britain and Africa, and acknowledges some of the failings of his profession.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It

Paul Collier Why did I love this book?

The Upswing is the culminating triumph of Robert Putnam’s work on ‘social capital’, - the glue that binds people into a community. Although his book charts the trajectory of an American tragedy – the erosion of community in America over the past 60 years, it comes with an uplifting message. He shows that America has climbed out of a society rabid in self-obsession before. That upswing began around 1900 and was build bottom-up, as people came together, community-by-community. What happened then – an ‘inflection point’ in which new ideas and brute shocks combined to change the downward trajectory, is underway once again. Putnam, a top professor at Harvard, is the world’s most distinguished political sociologist, but don’t be alarmed: Upswing is a joy to read.

By Robert D. Putnam,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'The most important book in social science for many years' Paul Collier, TLS Books of the Year

The Upswing is Robert D. Putnam's brilliant analysis of economic, social, cultural and political trends from the Gilded Age to the present, showing how America went from an individualistic 'I' society to a more communitarian 'We' society and then back again, and how we can all learn from that experience.

In the late nineteenth century, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarised and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However, as the twentieth century dawned, America became - slowly, unevenly, but…

Book cover of The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

Paul Collier Why did I love this book?

Don’t be by the weirdest title in the world, this is another landmark book and it perfectly complements The Upswing. Combining deep social history, - Europe in the Early Middle Ages – with revolutionary research on evolutionary biology, it shows how a distinctive inflection point fortuitously broke the otherwise universal practice of kin-group mating. This gradually released parts of Europe into forging the purposive social capital that Putnam celebrates. Nor need you be deterred by Heinrich’s polymath credentials – he currently heads Harvard’s Department of Evolutionary Biology, but could equally hold chairs in Anthropology or Economics – he writes beautifully for a general audience.

By Joseph Henrich,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The WEIRDest People in the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A landmark in social thought. Henrich may go down as the most influential social scientist of the first half of the twenty-first century' MATTHEW SYED

Do you identify yourself by your profession or achievements, rather than your family network? Do you cultivate your unique attributes and goals? If so, perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.

Unlike most who have ever lived, WEIRD people are highly individualistic, nonconformist, analytical and control-oriented. How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically peculiar? What part did these differences play in our history, and what do…

Book cover of The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?

Paul Collier Why did I love this book?

Tyranny is the landmark book that is moral philosophy’s contribution to the inflection point. Its fundamental concept of ‘contributive justice’ magnificently supersedes Rawls’ dated ‘distributive justice’. To give you a glimpse of two profound works, Rawls invoked some moral gymnastics involving a hypothetical withdrawal from society to a veil of ignorance about a hypothetical lottery of how a hypothetical national cake might be cut up. Sandel places us firmly back in our society and focuses on the agency needed for the moral duty to contribute to the baking of our national cake. Sandel, again at Harvard, is the most famous philosopher in the world, his superb online lectures have been so downloaded that they have triggered complaints from lesser philosophers fearing redundancy. Tyranny will shift your moral compass, but don’t be scared.

By Michael J. Sandel,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


The new bestseller from the acclaimed author of Justice and one of the world's most popular philosophers

"Astute, insightful, and empathetic...A crucial book for this moment" Tara Westover, author of Educated

These are dangerous times for democracy. We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favour of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the promise that "you can make it if you try". And the consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has…

Book cover of Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers

Paul Collier Why did I love this book?

It’s time for some economics. I am embarrassed to say that following the Global Financial Crisis my profession has fallen into acute disarray, its models have proved to be utterly inadequate. Radical Uncertainty in the landmark book explains why this was the case. Economists had reduced all unknowns to quantifiable probabilities, which could then be inserted into models and managed by diversification and insurance. Unfortunately, the world is not like that: with disturbing frequency, people, businesses, and societies are hit by ‘unknown unknowns’ like COVID. Managing uncertainty requires an approach quite alien to economics, its priorities being the resilience of strategies such as built-in redundancy, and rapid recovery that comes from decentralised experiments around a common purpose. Kay was once Britain’s boy-wonder of mathematical economics; King was once a top professor of finance who became the Governor of the Bank of England. Heroically, they have recanted the ideas they once taught. Fortunately for the lay reader, they know how to write.

By John Kay, Mervyn King,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Radical Uncertainty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Some uncertainties are resolvable. The insurance industry's actuarial tables and the gambler's roulette wheel both yield to the tools of probability theory. Most situations in life, however, involve a deeper kind of uncertainty, a radical uncertainty for which historical data provide no useful guidance to future outcomes. Radical uncertainty concerns events whose determinants are insufficiently understood for probabilities to be known or forecasting possible. Before President Barack Obama made the fateful decision to send in the Navy Seals, his advisers offered him wildly divergent estimates of the odds that Osama bin Laden would be in the Abbottabad compound. In 2000,…

Book cover of Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire

Paul Collier Why did I love this book?

The rise of the selfish society was given massive impetus by Milton Friedman’s 1970 dictum that the sole responsibility of business was to maximise profits for shareholders. ‘Greed is good’ spread through business schools, and by the 1990s their students had risen to the boardrooms, - a corporate contagion. Reimagining Capitalism is therefore heartening in its message, its timing, and its provenance. Its message is the categorial refutation of Freidman: when profit becomes the purpose, instead of simply necessary for the sustainability of a larger purpose, it blights lives and ruins businesses. Its timing coincides with the American Business Forum – over 180 of America’s top CEOs – rescinding their endorsement of the Friedman mantra, which for nearly thirty years they had endorsed. The inflection point is upon capitalism. Its provenance could not be more impeccable: Rebecca Henderson holds the highest rank of chair – University Professor - at Harvard Business School. Business’s pope has pronounced Friedman a heretic.

By Rebecca Henderson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A renowned Harvard professor debunks prevailing orthodoxy with a new intellectual foundation and a practical pathway forward for a system that has lost its moral and ethical foundation.
Free market capitalism is one of humanity's greatest inventions and the greatest source of prosperity the world has ever seen. But this success has been costly. Capitalism is on the verge of destroying the planet and destabilizing society as wealth rushes to the top. The time for action is running short.

Rebecca Henderson's rigorous research in economics, psychology, and organizational behavior, as well as her many years of work with companies around…

You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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