My favorite books about the rich, the super-rich, and wealth inequality in general

Why am I passionate about this?

Since I was a student, I have been fascinated with social and economic inequality–the more so because back then, my professors seemed to disregard this subject of study. So, I made it one of my own main areas of research: I simply needed to understand more about the nature and the causes of inequality in human societies. In recent years, I have been busy researching economic inequality in different historical settings, also looking at specific socioeconomic strata. I began with the poor, and more recently, I focused on the rich. In my list of recommendations, I included books that, I believe, are particularly insightful concerning wealth and the wealthy.

I wrote...

As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West

By Guido Alfani,

Book cover of As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West

What is my book about?

Who were the rich in history, and how did they obtain their wealth? Did they play the same role in society, and were they perceived in the same manner in the past as today? This book is the first attempt to provide a general history of the characteristics, behavior, and relative economic and social position of the rich and the super-rich. 

Covering the last thousand years and more and integrating recent research on economic inequality, the book highlights fundamental continuities in the behavior of the rich and public attitudes towards wealth across history. It argues that the position of the rich and especially the super-rich in Western society has always been fragile; their very presence has inspired social unease.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Guido Alfani Why did I love this book?

This is a book that truly transformed the field of inequality studies by bringing wealth inequality to the fore of the debate–both within the academy and across civil society. It is also a very readable book, packed with interesting examples and useful and relevant information.

Although I have always thought (and I am in very good company…) that it could have been a bit shorter, it is very well worth the effort of going through its about seven hundred pages.

By Thomas Piketty, Arthur Goldhammer (translator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Capital in the Twenty-First Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times #1 Bestseller
An Amazon #1 Bestseller
A Wall Street Journal #1 Bestseller
A USA Today Bestseller
A Sunday Times Bestseller
A Guardian Best Book of the 21st Century
Winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
Winner of the British Academy Medal
Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award

What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard…

Book cover of The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality

Guido Alfani Why did I love this book?

I have always loved Branko Milanović’s way of addressing complex topics in a very accessible and usually highly original way.

In this book, Milanović pays much attention to the rich and the super-rich and devises a way of comparing their wealth across the ages by asking this simple question: how much labour could they command in their own historical period and socio-economic context?

So, for example, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest Roman of Caesar’s times, could, with the yearly income from his vast possessions, command the work of 32,000 people. But, as Milanović argues, today’s super-rich are richer than past ones–circa 2010, the richest person in the world was the telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, who could command the work of 440,000 Mexicans.

By Branko Milanovic,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Haves and the Have-Nots as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who is the richest person in the world, ever? Does where you were born affect how much money you'll earn over a lifetime? How would we know? Why- beyond the idle curiosity- do these questions even matter? In The Haves and the Have-Nots , Branko Milanovic, one of the world's leading experts on wealth, poverty, and the gap that separates them, explains these and other mysteries of how wealth is unevenly spread throughout our world, now and through time. Milanovic uses history, literature and stories straight out of today's newspapers, to discuss one of the major divisions in our social…

Book cover of The Rich: From Slaves to Super-Yachts: A 2,000-Year History

Guido Alfani Why did I love this book?

Among all recent non-academic books on the lives, deeds, and misdeeds of the super-rich across history, John Kampfner’s book is, in my view, the best.

Kampfner selects fascinating examples, ranging from the Classical Age until today, and does not limit himself to the West. His narrative is engaging and often witty.

This is not an academic book, but it is pretty well-researched. Although it makes some concessions to the “eat the rich” tendencies of our times, overall, the book provides a convincing and valuable picture of the sins (and less so, of the virtues) of the most affluent across history.

By John Kampfner,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the Orwell Prize shortlisted author of Freedom for Sale, The Rich is the fascinating history of how economic elites from ancient Egypt to the present day have gained and spent their money.

Starting with the Romans and Ancient Egypt and culminating with the oligarchies of modern Russia and China, it compares and contrasts the rich and powerful down the ages and around the world. What unites them? Have the same instincts of entrepreneurship, ambition, vanity, greed and philanthropy applied throughout?

As contemporary politicians, economists and the public wrestle with the inequities of our time - the parallel world inhabited…

Book cover of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

Guido Alfani Why did I love this book?

In this book, Walter Scheidel proficiently exploits the new information that we now have available about wealth inequality in the past to make one bold claim: across history, only catastrophes and large-scale violence (the “Great Leveler”) could significantly reduce economic inequality. Otherwise, the concentration of political power and of coercive force in a few hands also led wealth to become ever more concentrated.

This is a rather depressing view, with which I partially disagree for scientific reasons (as it downplays the importance of human agency and of our collective choices).

Nevertheless, I love this book for its scope, its ambition, and the treasure trove of information about the Classical Age and non-Western societies and cultures that it brings to the debate on wealth inequality in human history.

By Walter Scheidel,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that it never dies peacefully. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. The "Four Horsemen" of leveling-mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues-have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Today, the violence that reduced inequality…

Book cover of Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family

Guido Alfani Why did I love this book?

I wanted to include in my list a book of fiction, and I quickly realized that there were no better alternatives than Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

First published in 1901, the book is an absolute classic of world literature–and it is also the finest example of a fictional history of a wealthy family dynasty, from its rise in the early nineteenth century to its final decline.

A very insightful take on the issues of wealth, inheritance, and the related family dynamics. Also, a great case study of the ultimate impossibility of buying happiness with money.

By Thomas Mann, John Edwards (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Discover Mann's Nobel Prizewinning semi-autobiographical and sweeping family epic.

The Buddenbrook clan is everything you'd expect of a nineteenth-century German merchant family - wealthy, esteemed, established. Four generations later, a tide of twentieth-century modernism has gradually disintegrated the bourgeois values on which the Buddenbrooks built their success.

In this, Mann's first novel, his astounding, semi-autobiographical family epic, he portrays the transition of genteel Germanic stability to a very modern uncertainty.

'Perhaps the first great novel of the 20th century' New York Times

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Book cover of Dulcinea

Ana Veciana-Suarez Author Of Dulcinea

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I became fascinated with 16th-century and 17th-century Europe after reading Don Quixote many years ago. Since then, every novel or nonfiction book about that era has felt both ancient and contemporary. I’m always struck by how much our environment has changed—transportation, communication, housing, government—but also how little we as people have changed when it comes to ambition, love, grief, and greed. I doubled down my reading on that time period when I researched my novel, Dulcinea. Many people read in the eras of the Renaissance, World War II, or ancient Greece, so I’m hoping to introduce them to the Baroque Age. 

Ana's book list on bringing to life the forgotten Baroque Age

What is my book about?

Dolça Llull Prat, a wealthy Barcelona woman, is only 15 when she falls in love with an impoverished poet-solder. Theirs is a forbidden relationship, one that overcomes many obstacles until the fledgling writer renders her as the lowly Dulcinea in his bestseller.

By doing so, he unwittingly exposes his muse to gossip. But when Dolça receives his deathbed note asking to see her, she races across Spain with the intention of unburdening herself of an old secret.

On the journey, she encounters bandits, the Inquisition, illness, and the choices she's made. At its heart, Dulcinea is about how we betray the people we love, what happens when we succumb to convention, and why we squander the few chances we get to change our lives.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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