The best books on why countries succeed and why they fail

Why am I passionate about this?

What are some countries rich and others are poor? I strongly believe that this is the most important question for modern economics. I've become an economist to understand this. I am happy that in recent decades economists – working closely together with other social scientists – have made so much progress in this field. And this is not abstract knowledge – it is being applied already to help developing countries catch up with the rich world. I have seen it myself when I took a leave from academia to work as a Chief Economist of a development bank (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) – to learn more from and to contribute to this work.

I wrote...

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century

By Sergei Guriev, Daniel Treisman,

Book cover of Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century

What is my book about?

Spin Dictators traces how leaders such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori pioneered less violent, more covert, and more effective methods of monopolizing power. They cultivated an image of competence, concealed censorship, and used democratic institutions to undermine democracy, all while increasing international engagement for financial and reputational benefits. The book reveals why most of today’s authoritarians are spin dictators—and how they differ from the remaining “fear dictators” such as Kim Jong-un and Bashar al-Assad, as well as from masters of high-tech repression like Xi Jinping.

Offering incisive portraits of today’s authoritarian leaders, Spin Dictators explains some of the great political puzzles of our time—from how dictators can survive in an age of growing modernity to the disturbing convergence and mutual sympathy between dictators and populists like Donald Trump.
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The books I picked & why

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

Sergei Guriev Why did I love this book?

This is a bestselling book that tackles the most important question in economics: why some countries are rich, and some are poor.

This well-written and convincing book provides a very broad and accessible overview of history of successful and failing societies. It argues that inclusive democratic institutions deliver better economic outcomes than authoritarian ones.

Given that this view is based on recent research in political economy and development economics – including the authors’ own groundbreaking work – this is a must-read for all advocates of liberal democracy who want to have quantitative arguments and historical narratives to stand up to the rise of authoritarianism around the world. 

I teach political economy of development. My job is to explain to the students why some countries are rich and others are poor.

Acemoglu and Robinson is a wonderful and accessible textbook. Students love it – even if they often argue with the book’s interpretations of their own countries’ histories. The debates with students about these issues are what makes my teaching so exciting. 

By Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors 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…

Book cover of How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth

Sergei Guriev Why did I love this book?

This is a great textbook as well. But it has two important advantages.

First, it came out 10 years later than Why Nations Fail, therefore covering so much more recent research in this very vibrant field of interdisciplinary work on what drives and what slows down economic development.

Second, while the authors have worked on these issues themselves, they are much less focused on one of the explanations of development and provide a more balanced view of the field.

Very informative read even for those who (like me) have already read a lot on the subject. A treasure of previously unknown stories of development and underdevelopment to discuss with friends and students. 

By Mark Koyama, Jared Rubin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Most humans are significantly richer than their ancestors. Humanity gained nearly all of its wealth in the last two centuries. How did this come to pass? How did the world become rich?

Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin dive into the many theories of why modern economic growth happened when and where it did. They discuss recently advanced theories rooted in geography, politics, culture, demography, and colonialism. Pieces of each of these theories help explain key events on the path to modern riches. Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in 18th-century Britain? Why did some European countries, the US, and Japan…

Book cover of Upheaval

Sergei Guriev Why did I love this book?

This is a fascinating in-depth account of several case studies of countries that faced a crisis and had to reinvent themselves: Australia, Chile, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, and the US (I am not mentioning the exact time points to avoid spoilers).

The author puts together a general framework to evaluate the factors that contribute to successful or failing transformations.

For me, as a Russian, this is a very practical guidebook – how should we rebuild Russia after Putin, how should Russia re-emerge as a peaceful and free country; how can we make sure that Russia will never again be what it is now. The book provides many insights on this but, unfortunately, also suggests that success is not guaranteed.

By Jared Diamond,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A "riveting and illuminating" Bill Gates Summer Reading pick about how and why some nations recover from trauma and others don't (Yuval Noah Harari), by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the landmark bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel.

In his international bestsellers Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, Jared Diamond transformed our understanding of what makes civilizations rise and fall. Now, in his third book in this monumental trilogy, he reveals how successful nations recover from crises while adopting selective changes -- a coping mechanism more commonly associated with individuals recovering from personal crises.

Diamond compares how six countries have survived…

Book cover of Alexander Hamilton

Sergei Guriev Why did I love this book?

This book was written almost 20 years ago but became much better known a decade later when Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the musical Hamilton based on this book.

This musical instantly became a global hit. But even more people watched it in 2020 when – because of COVID – it was being streamed online.

This book tells a story of emergence of the American system of government (a major innovation at that point) through the lens of the biography of one of its founding fathers, its first finance minister, and the most important author of the Federalist Papers Alexander Hamilton.

The reader can clearly see how today’s US owes much of its success to some (obviously, not all!) political and economic institutions created at the time of its establishment. The book (and the musical) also presents the human side of Hamilton which shows that even the great countries can be built by ingenious but fallible individuals. 

By Ron Chernow,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The #1 New York Times bestseller, and the inspiration for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton!

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.

"Grand-scale biography at its best-thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written . . . A genuinely great book." -David McCullough

"A robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." -Joseph Ellis

Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton.…

Book cover of A Gentleman in Moscow

Sergei Guriev Why did I love this book?

As a Russian – and as a scholar of Russian economic and political history – I am always intrigued by Russia’s failure to become a normal European country, free, prosperous, and peaceful.

This fiction book provides many great insights for anyone interested in this particular country. It focuses on the most dramatic and consequential episode of Russian history: the first decades of Soviet Union.

Given the tragic events of this period, fictional are nonfictional accounts of this time are usually too depressing to read. This book, however, finds a very unusual angle of telling this story.

The author does recount the main political developments of the period but manages to do it through the eyes of a (yes, fictional!) narrator who keeps integrity, dignity, and sense of humor. 

By Amor Towles,

Why should I read it?

31 authors picked A Gentleman in Moscow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The mega-bestseller with more than 2 million readers, soon to be a major television series

From the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Lincoln Highway and Rules of Civility, a beautifully transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and…

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The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

By Norrin M. Ripsman,

Book cover of The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

Norrin M. Ripsman Author Of Song Book

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I love a good short story that can convey character, emotion, and complexity. While a novel allows the writer (and the reader) to delve into the chaotic complexity of a single set of characters, a good short story collection can explore a range of humanity and a diversity of moods or feelings.  This was my motivation in writing my book. I believe a good short story collection on a well-grounded theme (such as the contributions to this list by Doerr, Kundera, and Munro) can often reveal more about human nature than an excellent novel.

Norrin's book list on short stories for a cottage trip

What is my book about?

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road explores the life and singular worldview of “Crazy Eddie,” a brilliant, highly-educated homeless man who panhandles in front of a downtown bank in a coastal town.

Eddie is a local enigma. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? A dizzying ride between past and present, the novel unravels these mysteries, just as Eddie has decided to return to society after two decades on the streets, with the help of Jane, a woman whose intelligence and integrity rival his own. Will he succeed, or is it too late?

In the tradition of Graham Greene, this is a book about love, betrayal, and life’s heavenly music

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

By Norrin M. Ripsman,

What is this book about?

“Crazy Eddie” is a homeless man who inhabits two squares of pavement in front of a bank in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this makeshift office, he panhandles and dispenses his peerless wisdom. Well-educated, fiercely intelligent with a passionate interest in philosophy and a profound love of nature, Eddie is an enigma for the locals. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? Though rumors abound, none capture the unique worldview and singular character that led him to withdraw from the perfidy and corruption of human beings. Just as Eddie has…

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