Big books on the big question

I’ve nearly finished reading Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality: How ideas, not capital or institutions, enriched the world – it’s out next month and I will be reviewing it elsewhere. This is of course the latest in her grand project, The Bourgeois Era, the first two being The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity. (I reviewed the latter in The New Statesman at the time.) McCloskey originally planned six volumes, but it seems three might now be the total. As each is over 600 pages long, this is already quite a lot.

Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce

Anyway, this isn’t a spoiler – I’ll save up my thoughts on Bourgeois Equality. But reading it set me thinking about what other books one ought to have read to evaluate properly this series about the history and dynamics of capitalism (although McCloskey doesn’t like the word). These are the ones that came to mind first – and clearly this is a question that inspires BIG books.

David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)

Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches; The Gifts of Athena; The Enlightened Economy

The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850 The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy

Robert Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

Ian Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now

Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail

Douglass North, The Rise of the Western World  The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History by North, Douglass C. Published by Cambridge University Press (1976) Paperback

Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

I’m sure there are tons more – McCloskey’s bibliography alone is 50 pages long. But anything essential left off this list?


4 thoughts on “Big books on the big question

  1. The Human Web, by J R McNeill and William H McNeill, is quite thought provoking – although strangely obsessed with dance as the glue that keeps human culture and society together.

  2. Braudel ? Graeber’s 5000 years of debt. Wennerlind’s Casualties of credit…. there’s no industrial revolution without the financial revolution. Seems like this is a blind spot with many histories of capitalism. Pillars of Prosperity by Besley.
    Power and Plenty by O’Rourke.

  3. I would echo pcle and add Braudel’s three-volume ‘Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century’ to the list. It is packed with interesting details. Here is an example from the first volume:

    “In the late Middle Ages in Europe, with growing populations and stagnating cereal yields, famine was never far away. Trees played an important role in food security. Chestnuts yielded flour that was used to make a biscuit known as ‘tree bread’ in the Cevennes and Corsica. In Italy, if grain was scarce the people has to eat ‘pane de castagni e legume’ (‘bread made of chestnuts and pulses’). In Aquitaine (where they were called ‘ballotes’) and elsewhere, they often filled the role taken over by potatoes in the nineteenth century. People in southern countries relied on chestnuts to a larger degree than is usually thought. … However, consumption of acorns and roots as in Dauphine during the winters of 1674-76 was quite exceptional, and a symptom of terrible famine.”

    This is a characteristically earthy detail, and Braudel is good at weaving these together in painting a picture of the social and economic changes in Europe over the centuries he covers.

    There is a good review with an overview of the contents here:

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