The best books about innovation… in the past when this was not yet a thing

Who am I?

As an archaeologist, I love prehistoric things and what can I learn from them about the people that made them and left them behind. I study ancient Maya commoners in what is now modern Guatemala. Their material remains are humble but include depictions and symbols normally found in the palaces of Maya kings and queens. First I wondered and then I studied how the title-giving war owl fell into the hands of Maya commoners. By approaching this process as innovation, I discuss creativity in the past and cultural changes that result from it.


I wrote...

War Owl Falling: Innovation, Creativity, and Culture Change in Ancient Maya Society

By Markus Eberl,

Book cover of War Owl Falling: Innovation, Creativity, and Culture Change in Ancient Maya Society

What is my book about?

How do innovation and creativity lead to social change in ancient societies? I discuss the ways eighth-century Maya (and Maya commoners in particular) reinvented objects and signs that were associated with nobility, including the symbol of the owl. Decision-making—the ability to imagine alternate worlds and to act on that vision—plays a large role in changing social structure over time. My “Garden of Forking Paths” model shows how innovators were those individuals who imagined an array of possible futures and negotiated power to reach desirable outcomes. Societal constraints or opportunities dictated whether members’ ideas were realized. Pinpointing where and when Maya inventions emerged, how individuals adopted them, and why, War Owl Falling connects technological and social change in a novel way.   

The books I picked & why

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Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

By Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson,

Book cover of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Why this book?

What makes nations successful while others fail? I'm not a fan of environmental arguments (most famously found in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel). Instead, Acemoglu and Robinson discuss how political and economic institutions handle innovations. They support their argument with historical case studies – including the Classic Maya and their famous collapse. While I disagree with some specific aspects, I find their argument thought-provoking.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

By Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award 2012.

Why are some nations more prosperous than others? Why Nations Fail sets out to answer this question, with a compelling and elegantly argued new theory: that it is not down to climate, geography or culture, but because of institutions. Drawing on an extraordinary range of contemporary and historical examples, from ancient Rome through the Tudors to modern-day China, leading academics Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson show that to invest and prosper, people need to know that if they work hard, they can make money…


The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration

By Anthony Giddens,

Book cover of The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration

Why this book?

Sociological theory poses the fascinating question of how people create society. Giddens' book offers one of the most compelling and lucidly written answers. He discusses individuals as agents and how our decisions have ripple effects – intended or not – that affect others. Social systems and the structures they consist of are constraining and enabling our behaviors. Society is like language and practices like speech: to communicate, we require vocabulary and grammar; at the same time, a language can't survive if nobody speaks it.

The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration

By Anthony Giddens,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Anthony Giddens has been in the forefront of developments in social theory for the past decade. In "The Constitution of Society" he outlines the distinctive position he has evolved during that period and offers a full statement of a major new perspective in social thought, a synthesis and elaboration of ideas touched on in previous works but described here for the first time in an integrated and comprehensive form. A particular feature is Giddens' concern to connect abstract problems of theory to an interpretation of the nature of empirical method in the social sciences. In presenting his own ideas, Giddens…


Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts

By Alexander Langlands,

Book cover of Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts

Why this book?

I admit that modern technology and its products are fascinating; marveling at a smartphone makes me realize, though, that I have for the most part no clue how to repair and even less so how to make it. This is not only my dilemma – Langlands discusses the challenges of making things with your own hands. His book inspired me to ask my students to collect clay, make pottery, and fire it in a course I teach. Apart from the DIY aspect, I was enthralled by his discussion of crafting as a state of being engaged. You have to know your skills and your resources very well to make a great pot!

Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts

By Alexander Langlands,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Faced with an endless supply of mass-manufactured products, we find ourselves nostalgic for goods bearing the mark of authenticity-hand-made tools, local brews, and other objects produced by human hands. Archaeologist and medieval historian Alexander Langlands reaches as far back as the Neolithic period to recover our lost sense of craft, combining deep history with detailed scientific analyses and his own experiences making traditional crafts. Craft brims with vivid storytelling, rich descriptions of natural landscape, and delightful surprises that will convince us to introduce more craft into our lives.


Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

By Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein,

Book cover of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Why this book?

This book introduced the concept of nudging into the public discourse, and I guess all of us have encountered it one way or the other. How many reminders have I gotten to sign up for this or that program?… Alas, I love Thaler and Sunstein's concept of choice architects. It made me think about power as a capacity to affect not only people but also the very framework in which people make decisions.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

By Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Nudge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now available: Nudge: The Final Edition

The original edition of the multimillion-copy New York Times bestseller by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Richard H. Thaler, and Cass R. Sunstein: a revelatory look at how we make decisions—for fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Named a Best Book of the Year by TheEconomist and the Financial Times

Every day we make choices—about what to buy or eat, about financial investments or our children’s health and education, even about the causes we champion…


Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens

By Simon Martin, Nikolai Grube,

Book cover of Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens

Why this book?

Prehistoric people outside of Europe are often assumed to be "people without history," as anthropologist Eric Wolf called them. Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube's book is exciting because it uses the recent decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs to reconstruct the lives of dozens of Maya rulers. At least some of the millions of ancient Maya have now names and a history. Their great art and architecture can be linked to artists who made them and to nobles who commissioned them.

Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens

By Simon Martin, Nikolai Grube,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Deep in the dense rainforests of Central America lie the turbulent stories of the Maya monarchy, stories brought vividly to life in Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens, which is newly available in paperback. Describing many of their own discoveries, two of the world's leading experts in Maya hieroglyphs take the reader into a once-hidden history, setting out the latest thinking on the nature of Maya divine kingship, statehood and political authority, and describing all the most recent readings and archaeological finds. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens combines groundbreaking research with a highly readable history, offering the…


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