The most recommended economic history books

Who picked these books? Meet our 55 experts.

55 authors created a book list connected to economic history, and here are their favorite economic history books.
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Book cover of Slouching Toward Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

Jonathan B. Baker Author Of The Antitrust Paradigm: Restoring a Competitive Economy

From my list on reads before—or after—you learn antitrust law.

Why am I passionate about this?

After college, I studied economics and law. Working in antitrust lets me use what I’ve learned about both fields. I’ve been a professor at a law school and a business school and worked on competition issues while serving in senior government positions in multiple federal agencies, including both antitrust agencies. I also like working in antitrust because fostering competition is important to our economy. Competition encourages firms to pursue success by developing and selling better and cheaper products and services, not by coordinating with their rivals or trying to exclude them. And I like antitrust because the cases can involve any industry—I might learn about baby food one day and digital platforms the next.  

Jonathan's book list on reads before—or after—you learn antitrust law

Jonathan B. Baker Why did Jonathan love this book?

This is a wide-ranging, thought-provoking, accessible, informed, lively, and convincing economic history of the “long” 20th century (1870 to 2010). 

Among its many narratives, the book shows how “thirty glorious years of social democracy” ended around 1975 when the U.S. and other economies in the global north took “the neoliberal turn” in favor of relying more on the market to organize society. 

That history is essential context for understanding why the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in the late 1970s and 1980s, relaxed the “structural era” antitrust rules in place since the 1940s, which had emphasized skepticism about growing concentration and the conduct of large firms in concentrated markets. 

The book also emphasizes the importance of technology-driven economic growth for human well-being. That perspective helps make the case today for economic policies that promote competition among firms, which fosters productivity and growth.

By J. Bradford DeLong,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From one of the world's leading economists, a grand narrative of the century that made us richer than ever, yet left us unsatisfied.
Before 1870, humanity lived in dire poverty, with a slow crawl of invention offset by a growing population. Then came a great shift: invention sprinted forward, doubling our technological capabilities each generation and utterly transforming the economy again and again. Our ancestors would have presumed we would use such powers to build utopia, but it was not so. When 1870-2010 ended, the world instead saw global warming, economic depression, uncertainty, inequality, and broad rejection of the status…

Book cover of Post-Capitalist Society

Edward J. Hoffman, Matthew Kohut, and Laurence Prusak Author Of The Smart Mission: NASA’s Lessons for Managing Knowledge, People, and Projects

From my list on creating and sustaining knowledge at work.

Why are we passionate about this?

The three co-authors of The Smart Mission: NASA’s Lessons for Managing Knowledge, People, and Projects have been at the center of organizational and leadership transformation. Dr. Ed Hoffman was NASA’s first Chief Knowledge Officer and the founding Director of the NASA Academy of Program, Project, and Engineering Leadership (APPEL). Matthew Kohut is the managing partner of KNP Communications. He has prepared executives, elected leaders, diplomats, scientists, and public figures for events ranging from television appearances to TED talks. Laurence Prusak was the founder and executive director of the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management and one of the founding partners for the Ernst and Young Center for Business Innovation.

Edward's book list on creating and sustaining knowledge at work

Edward J. Hoffman, Matthew Kohut, and Laurence Prusak Why did Edward love this book?

Peter Drucker remains the finest thinker and writer on management and the forces that influence management in recent times. He was prescient about so many things, but especially on the role of knowledge and knowledge work. He had a great influence on my own career in knowledge, and his books continue to be read and cited. Post-Capitalist Society is a great summation of his ideas as to how the economy and business is evolving.

By Peter F. Drucker,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Provides insight into the changes that are affecting politics, business and society itself. Business managers need to be aware of these changes in order to benefit from the opportunities that the future has to offer.

Book cover of Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius

Alan Bollard Author Of Economists at War: How a Handful of Economists Helped Win and Lose the World Wars

From my list on how economists agree and disagree amongst each other.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an economics professor at Victoria University of Wellington. As a previous Secretary of the New Zealand Treasury and Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, I have had quite a bit of experience watching economists’ ideas succeed and fail in the real world. I have written a number of books about policy economists and their lives in peace and wartime. (And a couple of novels too!)

Alan's book list on how economists agree and disagree amongst each other

Alan Bollard Why did Alan love this book?

Under the headings of hope, fear, and confidence, Nasar takes us through the lives, the ideas, the failings, and arguments of several dozen economists, in a lively journalistic fashion. From the last chaotic days of Joseph Schumpeter’s failing post-war Vienna to Joan Robinson’s 1950s propaganda trip to Stalin’s Moscow, she gives us an illuminating view of history and what economists did to try to improve it.

By Sylvia Nasar,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An instant New York Times bestseller, in a sweeping narrative the author of the esteemed A Beautiful Mind takes us on a journey through modern history with the men and women who changed the lives of every single person on the planet. Grand Pursuit is the epic story of the making of modern economics, of how economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands.

A New York Times bestseller, this sweeping narrative from the author of A Beautiful Mind takes us on a journey through modern history with the men and women…

Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Vinícius Guilherme Rodrigues Vieira Author Of Shaping Nations and Markets: Identity Capital, Trade, and the Populist Rage

From my list on understanding the transformation of capitalism and globalisation.

Why am I passionate about this?

Since 2008, I have conducted research on themes related to International Political Economy. I am currently the co-chair of the research committee on this topic at the International Political Science Association (IPSA) and am passionate about making sense of the interplay between material and symbolic factors that shape capitalism and globalisation. Being based in Brazil, I was stuck when the country—which did not have salient identity cleavages in politics—came to be, after 2008, a hotspot of religious-based right-wing populism associated with the defence of trade liberalisation as globalisation started to face meaningful backlash from White-majority constituencies who are relatively losers of the post-Cold War order in the advanced industrialised democracies.

Vinícius' book list on understanding the transformation of capitalism and globalisation

Vinícius Guilherme Rodrigues Vieira Why did Vinícius love this book?

As post-Cold War globalisation seems to face its fate, I always go back to this book as it offers lessons on the perils of taking for granted economic rationality. The 19th-century liberal order crumbled, and fascism emerged as a solution. In the same vein, is far-right populism a reaction against the consequences of neoliberalism?

Although he does not bring to the centre stage the impact of ethnic-religious cleavages, such a shortcoming only made me wonder whether his riveting account of modernity applies nowadays.

By Karl Polanyi,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Great Transformation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.

Book cover of Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life

Charles L. Marohn Jr. Author Of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

From my list on thinking like a Strong Towns advocate.

Why am I passionate about this?

Everyone should be able to live a meaningful life in a place they love, where their day-to-day efforts participating in society result in the community becoming a more prosperous place over time, for themselves, and for those who come next. I founded Strong Towns to help people recognize that they have this opportunity, that they and their neighbors working together have the capacity to make things better, despite everything else going on. Cities are works in progress. It is not our job to finish ours, but we all have a role to play in making it stronger.

Charles' book list on thinking like a Strong Towns advocate

Charles L. Marohn Jr. Why did Charles love this book?

I was introduced to Jane Jacobs as required reading during graduate school. I’m convinced that most urban planners who claim to adore Jacobs have not actually read her, particularly Cities and the Wealth of Nations, which is my favorite. Its thoroughly brutal logic stands in contrast to nearly everything we still do to manage our cities. Jacobs is an insightful genius.

By Jane Jacobs,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this eye-opening work of economic theory, Jane Jacobs argues that it is cities—not nations—that are the drivers of wealth. Challenging centuries of economic orthodoxy, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations the beloved author contends that healthy cities are constantly evolving to replace imported goods with locally-produced alternatives, spurring a cycle of vibrant economic growth. Intelligently argued and drawing on examples from around the world and across the ages, here Jacobs radically changes the way we view our cities—and our entire economy. 

Book cover of Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World

Tanya Jakimow Author Of Susceptibility in Development: Micropolitics of Local Development in India and Indonesia

From my list on anthropology of development.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an anthropologist of development who has conducted ethnographic research in India, Indonesia, and more recently, Australia. Throughout my career I have grappled with questions of how power works in development, particularly in and through processes of self-making. I seek new theoretical tools to examine these questions, but always grounded in the realities of the everyday. I came of age when post-development critiques were dominant, but both my idealism and cynicism have been tempered by working alongside local development actors. In my work I try to give readers a sympathetic portrait of their lives, beliefs, and hopes, and how these shape practices, relationships, and consequences of ‘development’. 

Tanya's book list on anthropology of development

Tanya Jakimow Why did Tanya love this book?

This book changed everything I thought I knew about development.

It makes the compelling case that the project of international development creates the condition of ‘underdevelopment’.

Drawing on key thinkers of the time, Edward Said and Michel Foucault, Escobar shows how development as a domain of thought and action produces the ‘third world’ as a site for intervention by former colonial powers, thereby continuing the imperial project.

As someone familiar with local development, I (and others), don’t share his faith in grassroots organisations as a solution, but find his analytical tools critical in interrogating how they work.

And as a bonus, Escobar offers a pointy critique of anthropologists’ complicity in development as an imperial project. 

By Arturo Escobar,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How did the industrialized nations of North America and Europe come to be seen as the appropriate models for post-World War II societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America? How did the postwar discourse on development actually create the so-called Third World? And what will happen when development ideology collapses? To answer these questions, Arturo Escobar shows how development policies became mechanisms of control that were just as pervasive and effective as their colonial counterparts. The development apparatus generated categories powerful enough to shape the thinking even of its occasional critics while poverty and hunger became widespread. "Development" was not…

Book cover of ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age

Yasuhiro Makimura Author Of Yokohama and the Silk Trade: How Eastern Japan Became the Primary Economic Region of Japan, 1843-1893

From my list on cities, their trades, and world trade.

Why am I passionate about this?

One of the oldest questions is: why are some countries rich and some countries poor? Adam Smith famously answered that it was the division of labor (specialization) and trade in his book The Wealth of Nations. The more you study trade, however, the more complicated the answer becomes. I have been grappling with this question since the 1990s, as a student, and I still do not have a simple answer like Adam Smith. However, I think I have come up with a framework to understand how the economic history of the world developed and I have been teaching that global history in college as a professor since the 2010s.

Yasuhiro's book list on cities, their trades, and world trade

Yasuhiro Makimura Why did Yasuhiro love this book?

In ReOrient, A.G. Frank argues that this current situation in which the West is at the center of the world is a mere blip in terms of global history. Historically Asia was always the richer part of the globe and once again, in the near future, Asia will be the richest part of the globe again.

By Andre Gunder Frank,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Andre Gunder Frank asks us to re-orient our views away from Eurocentrism - to see the rise of the West as a mere blip in what was, and is again becoming, an Asia-centered world. In a bold challenge to received historiography and social theory he turns on its head the world according to Marx, Weber, and other theorists, including Polanyi, Rostow, Braudel, and Wallerstein. Frank explains the Rise of the West in world economic and demographic terms that relate it in a single historical sweep to the decline of the East around 1800. European states, he says, used the silver…

Book cover of Between Two Cultures: An Introduction to Economic History

Thomas D. Conlan Author Of Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD

From my list on medieval European history to Japanese literature.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been fascinated with history in general, and the history of Japan, since I was in junior high when I read a book on the samurai. After attending summer school at Harvard in 1985, I resolved to devote myself to the study of Japan. Since then, I have studied at Michigan, Stanford, and Kyoto before teaching Japanese history at first Bowdoin College and now, Princeton University. Although I primarily research Japanese history, I find scholarship pertaining to medieval and early modern Europe to be fascinating as well. 

Thomas' book list on medieval European history to Japanese literature

Thomas D. Conlan Why did Thomas love this book?

Cipolla, a brilliant author, shows in this study how economic history and economic concepts can be used to study the past even when they did not exist at the time. Cipolla engagingly explains how economic concepts, even when unrecognized, can be useful tools of analysis. In order to demonstrate this principle, for example, he memorably explains how the clothes used to prevent plague in medieval Europe were effective for reasons totally different than contemporaries realized. Mistaken understandings could still lead to effective actions.  

By Carlo M. Cipolla, Christopher Woodall (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this wise and witty work, a world-renowned economic historian takes us behind the scenes to observe a small band of scholars reconstructing the past with the tools of economic analysis and the narrative power of the traditional historian.

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

Johan Norberg Author Of Open: The Story of Human Progress

From my list on to make you grateful you live today.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Johan's book list on to make you grateful you live today

Johan Norberg Why did Johan love 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.

By Stephen Davies,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How did the modern dynamist economy of wealth and opportunity come about? This major new analytical work emphasizes the often surprising, fundamental and continuing processes of innovation and transformation which has produced the world we live in now. / Today we live in a social and economic world that is fundamentally different from the one inhabited by our ancestors. The difference between the experience of people living today and that of all of our ancestors back to the advent of agriculture is as great as that between them and their hunter-gatherer forebears. The processes of transformational changes could have started…

Book cover of Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States

William H. Janeway Author Of Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Reconfiguring the Three-Player Game between Markets, Speculators and the State

From my list on venture capital and the economics of innovation.

Why am I passionate about this?

After receiving my doctorate in Economics at Cambridge University, I embarked on a 35-year sabbatical as a venture capitalist focused on information technology. I learned about the critical role that the American state had played by sponsoring the computer industry. When the "Dotcom Bubble" of the late 1990s grossly overpriced my companies, because I had written my PhD thesis on 1929-1931 when the Bubble of the Roaring Twenties exploded, I had seen the movie before and knew how it ended. I returned to Cambridge determined to tell this saga of innovation at the frontier and the strategic roles played by financial speculation and the state in funding economic transformation."

William's book list on venture capital and the economics of innovation

William H. Janeway Why did William love this book?

Jon Levy provides a hugely creative account of American history through the evolution of its distinctive institution, capitalism.

He relates the unstable dynamics of financial markets to the waves of investment in real capital incorporating innovative technologies and never loses sight of the tension between power accumulated and expressed in markets and the distribution of political power, always attentive to how the former can take over control of the latter.

Levy’s work has enriched my own understanding of this contested history.

By Jonathan Levy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A leading economic historian traces the evolution of American capitalism from the colonial era to the present—and argues that we’ve reached a turning point that will define the era ahead.

“A monumental achievement, sure to become a classic.”—Zachary D. Carter, author of The Price of Peace

In this ambitious single-volume history of the United States, economic historian Jonathan Levy reveals how capitalism in America has evolved through four distinct ages and how the country’s economic evolution is inseparable from the nature of American life itself. The Age of Commerce spans the colonial era through the outbreak of the Civil War,…