Reading is Fundamental

... and if you don't think so, it might be time to enroll in this school...

Rajiv Shah has chosen a set of his favourite development books over at The Browser. It’s obviously a selection designed to stimulate a bit of interest in USAID’s current approaches to development, and it’s a pretty good one (though Chris Blattman has a legitimate beef with one of his comments).

One thing I like about the list is that it goes outside the standard development texts, with one selection about the development and impact of fixed nitrogen fertilizer. He also selects a work of economic history, Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. I’m glad to see some economic history here, but I probably would have chosen some different ones. Here are some suggestions:

The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz, which looks in detail at the Industrial Revolution, and why it didn’t occur in Japan or China. I can’t stress enough how important it is that we understand why massive economic transformations occur, because every country that goes from poor to rich goes through one. Why did China not have its own in the 19th Century? Pomeranz looks at some of the reasons.

Of course, one of the seminal papers about the Industrial Revolution was Jan de Vries’ The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution, which makes great play of the importance of increased output and consumption powered by effort and extended working hours – these provided a kick that supported deeper processes pushing an Industrial Revolution. It’s been criticised since its publication, but it injected a layer of complexity into the analysis of the industrial revolution that was missing. Its ideas contribute to Chris Bayly’s thinking in The Birth of the Modern World, probably the most impressive work of history I’ve come across.

Another cracking book, again flawed, is David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, again explicitly looking at the role of cultural norms in generating industrial transformation. I don’t agree with this 100% or even close to that, but it’s a thought provoking and excellently written work.

Finally, I’m going to cheat a little with my last two. The first is one I haven’t actually read yet: The Origins of Capitalism by Ellen Wood, subtitled A Longer View. This looks absolutely fascinating, bringing together history, economics, culture, philosophy and ideology into a wide-ranging analysis of modernity and capitalism in Europe. I can’t wait to read it.

The last book I would select as an economic history is actually a work of fiction (harking back to a previous post when I suggested five non-standard sources of learning on development). I read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell on the recommendation of my brother-in-law and I couldn’t agree more with his high estimation of it. Written in 1855, at a time when industrial capitalism was just taking root in England, it offers remarkably thoughtful critiques of the cultural and economic impacts of industrialization and the ways in which capital and labour interact and would continue to interact under this system. It’s astonishing to think it wasn’t written with a century of hindsight. It recognizes the transition to capitalism for what it is: messy, violent, hugely beneficial and all-encompassing: no one can opt out.

Any other favourite development books out there? Always grateful for new suggestions, especially those that are well written as well as intelligent.

3 thoughts on “Reading is Fundamental

  1. Jiesheng

    June 10, 2011 at 3:23pm

    Not a single book from Joe Stiglitz, Ha-Joon Chang, Dani Rodrik or other heterodox economists

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    June 10, 2011 at 8:49pm

    Jiesheng – Stiglitz is hardly heterodox – he just uses informational economics in a way that produces results against the neoclassical model. If you want really heterodox economics, I’d read economists like Ben Fine and Deirdre McCloskey, both of whom I recommend.

    The list here is specifically about economic history; only Ha-Joon Chang in your list comes close to writing true economic history, and even then it’s more political economy with a bit of history thrown in as evidence (not to do him down – I think he’s excellent). Ditto Rodrik, who I also like a lot. They’re all very well known writers, and I’d be a little shocked if I met a serious development economist who hadn’t read at least two of the three. On the other hand, the writers in the list above probably aren’t widely read among economists generally, let alone development economists.

    If you read these historians (and all of them are historians primarily, though some are versed in economics, Gaskell being the exception to both) you’ll find that all of them are works that caused a massive ruction in the areas they study – all contribute something really new as well.

  3. Andres

    June 21, 2011 at 6:02pm

    “Moral Basis of a Backward Society”
    and “Making Democracy Work”

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