The best books about the economy

56 authors have picked their favorite books about the economy and why they recommend each book.

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War Stuff

By Joan E. Cashin,

Book cover of War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War

We frequently read about the glories and historic decisions of the Civil War, but here is an eye-opening book that shows us how enormous was the civilian suffering caused by the conflict. Joan Cashin invigorates Civil War studies by treating military history, material culture, the environment, gender, and military-civilian relations from a fresh perspective. You will think about the war in a changed way after reading this fine book.

Who am I?

Paul D. Escott is the author of eleven books focused on the Confederacy or the Union, is co-author of other volumes, and has written many articles and book chapters. He won research fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Whitney M. Young Jr. Foundation and is the Reynolds Professor of History Emeritus from Wake Forest University.

I wrote...

Lincoln's Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era.

By Paul D. Escott,

Book cover of Lincoln's Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era.

What is my book about?

The central issue of the Civil War was slavery and the status of African Americans in society. Abraham Lincoln occupied a middle position between abolitionists and advocates of colonization in his party, and he had close relationships with the two leaders of those positions: Senator Charles Sumner and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. This book explores the friendships and events that shaped policy and was a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2014.

The Americans

By Daniel J. Boorstin,

Book cover of The Americans: The Colonial Experience

The joy of this book (and its sister volumes on the “national” and the democratic” experience) comes from the panoramic journey across space and time that the reader is taken on. This work is, above all, a positive, life-enhancing view of the United States with its focus on continuity rather than conflict. There is an idealistic and romantic strain to this vision, as he pictures a young nation sloughing off the rigid carapace of the Old World, with the idea of a calling replaced by an idea of opportunity. Boorstin is an exemplary guide: his canvas is rich and complex, with countless stories brilliantly picked out to illuminate his vision. Examples include: the utopian vision for the State of Georgia known as “The Margravate of Azalia”; the creation of the Minnesota Pioneer as a dynamic editor loaded a press on a steamboat going up the Mississippi to the future state…

Who am I?

Tristram Riley-Smith was posted to the British Embassy in Washington DC in the aftermath of 9/11. Alongside his day job he applied his skills as a Cultural Anthropologist to understand the greatest nation of the 20th Century as it crossed the threshold of the 21st. His interest is in all forms of invention, from those narratives and performances that give meaning to people’s lives to the material objects that furnish their world. In his book The Cracked Bell, Riley-Smith weaves his observations together in a literary portrait of America, revealing the alchemy of opposites that makes up this extraordinary nation.

I wrote...

The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty

By Tristram Riley-Smith,

Book cover of The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty

What is my book about?

The twin concepts of liberty and the free market have been instrumental in shaping American identity. Here, author Tristram Riley-Smith delves into how the perverting of these concepts has led to today's economic crisis and identity crisis for America.

Including President Obama's election and the initial stimulus package, Riley-Smith takes us on a whirlwind examination of America. For three years, he served in the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and traveled throughout the country and this outsider's perspective offers an in-depth look at the state of American culture after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, toxic debts, and the credit crunch. With lively, insightful commentary, careful research, and illuminating personal anecdotes, Riley-Smith uses images like the cracked liberty bell to explain just where things went wrong, and how we can make them right. He touches upon big issues and examines America's consumer culture, using recognizable icons like Martha Stewart, Giorgio Armani, artist Barbara Kruger, and Wal-Mart.


By Anne Goldgar,

Book cover of Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age

Perhaps no one object was more demonstrative of the Dutch thirst for beauty, novelty and showing-off-but-not-showing-off riches than the tulip. The famous mania for these exotic bulbs, bred to produce ever more exotic flowers and to command ever higher prices, supposedly produced the world’s first economic bubble, which burst spectacularly in February 1637.

The truth is less spectacular (few people were involved in the trade and even fewer were ruined) but, in Goldgar’s skilful telling, much richer and more nuanced than the myth. The episode tells us about the growth of maritime trade and the emergence of the modern financial industry (including the important concept of risk) as well as the cultural interests of Dutch people at this exciting time in their history when the accumulation and subtle display of wealth vied in importance with the quest for aesthetic novelty and genuine curiosity about the natural world. One fashion-conscious doctor…

Who am I?

In my writing about science, I am always keen to include the artistic and literary dimension that links the science to the broader culture. In Huygens, a product of the Dutch Golden Age, I found a biographical subject for whom it would have been quite impossible not to embrace these riches. This context – including painting, music, poetry, mechanics, architecture, gardens, fashion and leisure – is crucial to understanding the life that Huygens led and the breakthroughs he was able to make.

I wrote...

Dutch Light

By Hugh Aldersey-Williams,

Book cover of Dutch Light

What is my book about?

Filled with incident, discovery, and revelation, Dutch Light is a vivid account of Christiaan Huygens’s remarkable life and career, but it is also nothing less than the story of the birth of modern science as we know it.

Europe’s greatest scientist during the latter half of the seventeenth century, Christiaan Huygens was a true polymath. A towering figure in the fields of astronomy, optics, mechanics, and mathematics, many of his innovations in methodology, optics and timekeeping remain in use to this day. Among his many achievements, he developed the theory of light travelling as a wave, invented the mechanism for the pendulum clock, and discovered the rings of Saturn – via a telescope that he had also invented.

Voices of Protest

By Alan Brinkley,

Book cover of Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression

This groundbreaking and wonderfully written study of two “protest” leaders during the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States shows us what happens when truly hard times hit ordinary people, and what sort of leaders they then turn to. Brinkley brilliantly chronicles the rise of Louisiana politician Huey Long, the “Kingfish”, from obscurity in the poor Jim Crow south to becoming, by the time he was assassinated in 1935, the most significant political threat to the popular President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Long’s calls for wealth redistribution, contempt for traditional elites, and disregard for democratic institutions, make him an important historical example of so-called populist leadership, and of the power and appeal of populism in times of crisis.

Who am I?

Moshik Temkin is a historian of the United States and the World and has taught about leadership and history at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Harvard University in Massachusetts, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and other institutions around the world. He is the author of The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial and is writing a book on leadership in history for PublicAffairs called Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: On Leaders and Leadership in History.

I wrote...

Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial

By Moshik Temkin,

Book cover of Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial

What is my book about?

In 1920, in the wake of the first “Red Scare” and at a time of rising anti-immigration sentiment in the United States, two young Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested in Boston for a robbery and murder. As the men protested their innocence, their local case turned into an unprecedented political scandal around the world as the perception grew that their conviction was a judicial travesty and their death sentence a political murder. Drawing on research on two continents and in several languages, my book tells the story of how these obscure immigrants became the center of a global cause célèbre that forever transformed America’s relationship with the world.

The Shanghai Free Taxi

By Frank Langfitt,

Book cover of The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

By offering free taxi rides in Shanghai, long-time NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt opened his ears to a wide variety of ordinary Chinese from all walks of life. Due to the pandemic, Americans haven’t been able to travel in China lately, so this is the closest a reader can get to actual conversations with Chinese people about life in China today. Most do not seem oppressed! Published in June 2019. 

Who am I?

A Seattle-based author, I have written eight books, including When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening, about the eight years I spent as Business Week’s reporter covering China, 1982-1990. In it, I give readers an inside look at China’s transformation from Maoism to modernity. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, I have traveled widely in China for over forty years and befriended Chinese people at many levels of society, leading me to a strong belief in the importance of direct cross-cultural communication and deepened mutual understanding.

I wrote...

When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

By Dori Jones Yang,

Book cover of When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

What is my book about?

The best books by foreign correspondents give readers a deep look inside another country at a particularly pivotal moment of history. I was fortunate to be a U.S. correspondent covering China during the 1980s, just as it began opening to the outside world. This book weaves my personal story as a young woman in a male-dominated profession—who met and married a Chinese man—with the dramatic ups and downs of China’s early experiments with capitalism. Today we are witnessing another pivotal moment in US-China relations, and it’s important for English speakers to seek out the “story behind the story.”

Nothing to Envy

By Barbara Demick,

Book cover of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

I met Barbara at an international conference on human rights called Oslo Freedom Forum, in Norway, where we were both speakers at that conference. After talking to her, I read her book and learned more about the heart-breaking situation in North Korea. It was a real eye-opener for me and inspired me to see the courage of North Korean refugees who escaped the atrocities and speak out for their own homeland. 

Who am I?

I'm a human rights activist from Burma. When I was 14, I was forced to flee to Thailand because of an attack by the Burmese military and ended up in a refugee camp. As one of Burma's leading democracy activists in Europe, I campaign for the promotion of human rights, democracy, and development back home in Burma. Together with my family, I set up Phan Foundation which aims to preserve Karen culture, promote human rights, fight poverty and provide education for Karen people. This is in memory of my mother Nant Kyin Shwe and my father Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, who was assassinated by agents of the Burmese military.

I wrote...

Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West

By Zoya Phan,

Book cover of Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West

What is my book about?

Zoya Phan was born in the remote jungles of Burma to the Karen tribe, which for decades has been resisting Burma’s brutal military junta. At age 14, her peaceful childhood was shattered when the Burmese army attacked. So began two terrible years of running, as Zoya was forced to join thousands of refugees hiding in the jungle. Her family scattered, her brothers went deeper into the war, and Zoya, close to death, found shelter at a Thai refugee camp, where she stayed until 2004 when she fled to the U.K. and claimed asylum. There, in a twist of fate, she became the public face of the Burmese people’s fight for freedom. This is her inspirational story.

Anti-Politics Machine

By James Ferguson,

Book cover of Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho

Many people get involved with Africa through their concern for its’ poverty and with a genuine desire to help “develop” Africa. Ferguson’s analysis shows how counter-productive this is without an understanding of the ways in which African society differs from western society. Much social theory is generalizations based on interpretations of western development. These ideas are then projected into Africa on the basis that the more they are like us, the more developed they will be. I hope these five books help you un-learn this perspective and embrace the originality and genius of Africa.

Who am I?

I am a social scientist who has been doing fieldwork and research in Africa since 1999. For me, there’s no more fascinating part of the planet – Africa is the cradle of civilization, more diverse than anywhere else and culturally and institutionally vibrant and creative. I have worked in Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe investigating the determinants of political institutions and economic prosperity. I have taught courses on Africa at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Ghana at Legon and this summer the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.

I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

Brilliant and engagingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has stumped the experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it). Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities.

The Making of the English Working Class

By E.P. Thompson,

Book cover of The Making of the English Working Class

This is the classic study of the other side of Regency politics: the working class’s struggle to achieve class consciousness and assert themselves in a threatening new industrial environment, where many of them were losing their jobs. Thompson has a Marxist support for the working-class struggle, combined with a surprising respect for the statesmen who prevented that struggle from erupting into revolution. Forestalling the emergence of Thompson’s working-class consciousness was a primary objective of Pitt, Liverpool, and their colleagues and generally, they succeeded; working-class consciousness only emerged, encouraged by the Whigs, in the Reform Bill struggle of 1831-32, after the Tories had lost power.  Alas, the workers lost out through that measure’s middle-class franchise; as the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’ wrote, quoted by Thompson: “Of all governments, a government of the middle classes is the most grinding and remorseless.”

Who am I?

More than 40 years ago, I first started writing a book on great ‘Tory’ leaders throughout history, several of whom were inexorably tied to this Regency period. Having never lost interest in the topic I continued to study the period and its political life and found a way to parlay experience from my career in finance and international business into a biography of the most economically proficient Prime Minister Britain has ever had. Research for that biography as well as for future Industrial Revolution-related books on which I am currently working has resulted in a broad and fruitful list of books on the period's politics.

I wrote...

Britain's Greatest Prime Minister: Lord Liverpool

By Martin Hutchinson,

Book cover of Britain's Greatest Prime Minister: Lord Liverpool

What is my book about?

Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister: Lord Liverpool unpicks two centuries of Whig history to redeem Lord Liverpool (1770-1828) from ‘arch-mediocrity’ and establish him as the greatest political leader the country has ever seen. Past biographers of Lord Liverpool have not sufficiently acknowledged the importance of his foremost skill: economic policy (including fiscal, monetary, and banking system questions). Here, Hutchinson’s experience in the finance sector provides a specialised perspective on Liverpool’s economic legacy.

From his adept handling of unparalleled economic and social difficulties, to his strategic defeat of Napoleon and unprecedented approach to the subsequent peace process, Liverpool is shown to have set Britain’s course for prosperity and effective government for the following century. In addition to picking apart his domestic and foreign policy, Hutchinson advances how a proper regard for Liverpool’s career might have changed the structure and policies of today’s government for the better.

The Age of Turbulence

By Alan Greenspan,

Book cover of The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World

Apart from revealing and sometimes dismaying insights into the workings of the White House, this legendary chairman of the US Federal Reserve presents a tour d’horizon of the economic thought that underpins the creation of wealth. As such, it should be obligatory reading for anybody interested in how nations prosper (or don’t), how governments routinely make disastrous interventions even if they aim to act for the right reasons, why Adam Smith continues to influence our lives (even though we don’t know it), and why capitalism is so foolishly demonised by banner-waving grandstanders.

Who am I?

Selwyn Parker is an award-winning journalist, author, speaker and pianist. In journalism he focuses on transformational contemporary issues like the new era in energy, the upheaval in banking, the revolution in transportation and the fast-moving world of investment. However most of his dozen books – novels and non-fiction -- are rooted in landmark historical events whose effects still register today.

I wrote...

The Great Crash: How the Stock Market Crash of 1929 Plunged the World into Depression

By Selwyn Parker,

Book cover of The Great Crash: How the Stock Market Crash of 1929 Plunged the World into Depression

What is my book about?

The Great Crash explains how the implosion of Wall Street in 1929 triggered a series of catastrophic events that ran around the world and led to poverty and misery for millions, launched Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped bring the Nazis to power, set the scene for another world war, and ultimately ushered in a new global order.

Building Mid-Republican Rome

By Seth Bernard,

Book cover of Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

The monuments we see when we visit Rome were constructed under the emperors. But Rome was already a great metropolis before they began work, one that was architecturally unique and built on a scale to dwarf most ancient cities. What this book does is reconstruct the great building projects of the Republic, beginning with the original fourth-century walls of Rome and the first aqueducts. It asks (and answers) questions like: Where did they get the stone? Who provided the labour? How long did it take them? And what technologies did they use? This was a Rome built without marble, without concrete, and not a royal foundation, but one managed by generations of magistrates riding the wave of a slow economic boom. Completely fascinating.

Who am I?

I am an historian and archaeologist of the Roman world, who has lectured on the subject around the world. This summer I am moving from a position in London to one in Los Angeles. One of the attractions of Roman history is that it is a vast subject spanning three continents and more than a thousand years. There is always something new to discover and a great international community of researchers working together to do just that. It is a huge privilege to be part of that community and to try and communicate some its work to the widest audience possible.

I wrote...

Rome: An Empire's Story

By Greg Woolf,

Book cover of Rome: An Empire's Story

What is my book about?

A decade ago I wrote the first edition of this history of Rome from its foundation to the Arab Conquests that nearly overwhelmed the empire a millennium and a half later. I was travelling a lot in those days, and I wrote whenever and wherever I had a moment. Part of it was drafted in Brazil at the busy university of UNICAMP, and I finished it in beautiful Erfurt in the green heart of Germany. 

This edition was written entirely in lockdown, sitting at my desk in Scotland surrounded by the latest books on Roman history. It has been exciting to see how fast the subject is changing, and I have tried to reflect that in the new text. There is more on the beginning and much more on the end of the story, Roman material culture plays a bigger part, and again and again, new research has made me rethink my views. I hope my readers learn as much from it as I learned rewriting it!

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