The best books to make you grateful you live today

Who am I?

I did not use to believe in human progress, but thought there must have been good old days behind us – until I studied history and understood that my ancestors did not live ecologically, they died ecologically, at an early age. Since then I’ve been obsessed with progress, what makes it possible and how we can spread it to more people. I am a historian of ideas from Sweden, the host of a video series on innovations in history, New and Improved, and the writer of many books on intellectual history and global economics, translated into more than 25 languages.

I wrote...

Open: The Story of Human Progress

By Johan Norberg,

Book cover of Open: The Story of Human Progress

What is my book about?

Mankind conquered the planet because we use more brains and more hands, always learning from and exchanging with others. History’s great civilizations were dependent on openness to people, goods, and ideas from strange places – and so are we.

But there is a catch. We developed this ability to cooperate harmoniously so that we could kill and steal. Competition between groups in pre-history turned us into traders, but also tribalists, tempted to divide the world into us and them. We need openness, but are often uncomfortable with it. This is the historical and psychological background to the current battle between Open and Closed. Part sweeping history and part polemic, this book makes the case for why an open world is worth fighting for more than ever.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Good Old Days-- They Were Terrible!

By Otto Bettmann,

Book cover of The Good Old Days-- They Were Terrible!

Why this book?

This 1974 book, by the founder of one of the world’s great picture libraries, was a real eye-opener to me when I first read it. We are all nostalgic and look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, and so do I. But then we forget about the hunger and the crime, tuberculosis, smallpox and heaps of trash on the streets, the child labor, and the despair of the aged. This richly illustrated book, with its multitude of stories, set me straight. For instance, did you know that New York had 150,000 horses in 1900, each producing around 20 pounds of manure a day? The past stank. It makes you deeply grateful for science, technology, and economic growth.

The Emigrants: The Emigrant Novels: Book I

By Vilhelm Moberg,

Book cover of The Emigrants: The Emigrant Novels: Book I

Why this book?

This is a series of four novels, based on the true story of the Swedish emigration to America in the 19th and early 20th century. It is a powerful tale of the hunger and oppression that forced them away, the physical and psychological cost of migration, and the promise of freedom in the new world. By condensing a million life stories into the staunch individualist Karl Oskar and his slightly more hesitant family and friends, Vilhelm Moberg did not just make history come alive, he also illustrated eternal truths about mankind and its struggle for progress.  

The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom's Greatest Champions

By James Powell,

Book cover of The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom's Greatest Champions

Why this book?

To me, it seems like you have to become an optimist when you study history, because you understand the terrible circumstances that we have managed to get away from. But it doesn’t happen by itself. This is the story about some of the most important individuals who made that possible. Jim Powell portrays freedom fighters throughout history, from Cicero and Locke to Martin Luther King Jr and F A Hayek, and many less well-known names. But Powell does not just describe their ideas, but their lives, the communities that made them possible, their courage, and their doubts. It’s incredibly inspiring.

Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

By Stephen Davies,

Book cover of Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Why this book?

The great fact of economic history is that we all used to be poor, and now most of us are not. 200 years ago, almost 90 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, today around 9 percent does. This is the story of that remarkable transformation and what made it possible. Of course, there are many good books on this, and I have greatly enjoyed for example Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, and David Landes, but this is a powerful, short book by a great historian, that manages to weave together economic, political, technological and intellectual factors into a very compelling narrative of progress and its preconditions over the past one thousand years.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Why this book?

I also wake up every morning, check the news and think that the world is falling apart. Because evolution in our dangerous pre-history often resulted in the survival of those who worried most. That is why we have to check the data and the long-term trends to correct for our exaggerated sense of drama, to understand where we are – in the period of time with the most wealth, best health, most literacy, and least poverty. There are other great books from rational optimists, like Matt Ridley, Hans Rosling, and Charles Kenny, but Steven Pinker’s is the one that covers most areas, and does it in a convincing and impassioned way. It is a wonderful book and one you should have on the bedside table, if only for a quick glance every time you get the impression the world is falling apart.

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