Macro-History: A Few Books

This post was originally published at the Scholar’s Stage on 14 December 2014. Re-posted here without alteration.

The last two months were far busier than I expected them to be. I apologize to the Stage’s readers for the lull in posting–more than once I started post or essay during these weeks only to discover that I did not have the spare time to finish it. Now that the Yuletide is upon us my workload is much lighter and I expect to polish up and publish a few of the things that have been sitting in the queue since October.

Before I get into any of that, however, I would like to make a few book recommendations. Earlier this month Anton Howes—the proprietor of the excellent economic-history blog Capitalism’s Cradle and a PhD aspirant over at King’s College political economy program–asked his twitter followers for book recommendations on global economic history or other related macrohistorical topics.  In the thread that followed something close to 70 titles were recommended.  Participants tried to avoid the obvious choices (Braudel, Pomerantz, Acemoglu, etc.) for other important books that are easily overlooked or forgotten. If memory serves correct I recommended six or seven titles; at least half came from our mutual blog-friend Pseudoerasmus.

For those interested in seeing the full list without trawling through twitter’s archives Mr. Howe created an Amazon wishlist that contains all the books recommended to him. The list is pretty neat. However, as I reviewed it earlier this week I realized that there are a few titles I forgot to suggest earlier that deserve a place on it. These are my suggested additions and a few comments on why I think they are worth your time:

Robert Kelly’s Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum.

(If you are to read one book on hunter-gather lifestyles, living standards, or decision-making models, this should be it. Unlike many cultural anthropologists, Kelly is a committed social scientist not afraid to model human decisions or present falsifiable theories. Also, the book teems with data). 

Vaclav Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems and Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature.

(It is hard to dig into one of Vaclav Smil’s encyclopedic tomes and see the world through quite the same lens ever again. Smil has a deep appreciation for the physical stuff that civilization is made up of. He bridges the natural and social sciences with descriptions of human society and economic exchange as flows of energy and material. These books should be in your library as reference works, if nothing else).

Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past

(This book is almost forty years old. It should be outdated, but I have not been able to find a better one-volume introduction to China’s institutional history or the Song dynasty’s “Medieval Economic Revolution”). 

Fransesca Bray’s The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies.  

(Both the opening and closing chapters of this book, which discuss the domestication of rice and the “Asian development model,” have been outmoded by newer research. The meat of the book–including a nuts-and-bolts description of rice agriculture in its many forms and a survey of the different agricultural models used to grow rice across East and Southeast Asia over the last two thousand years–is still very useful. Particular strengths are Song China, Tokugawa Japan, and early modern Malaysia).

William McNiell’s The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since AD 1000

(I am reading this right now. As is always the case with McNiell’s work, this book is a panoramic presentation of the human past–a bird’s eye view of human civilization, so to speak.  It is both a history of armed conflict and a history of market exchange; his thesis is that neither one of these can be separated from the other. It will make you think).

Chester G. Starr’s The Roman Empire, 27 BC-467 AD: A Study in Survival. 

(I reread this book once every few years. It is a slim work and the best introduction to the structure of Roman society and Roman imperial institutions I know of. Read it before you jump into anything on the Roman economy).

Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.

 (This book is not about economics or history. However, I think it is important for people working on comparative history, economics, sociology, etc. to be familiar with the research Nisbett summarizes here. For the last three decades social physiologists have performed dozens of experiments to find out if people from different parts of the world think the same way. Turns out they do not. Travelers have always known this, of course, but now there is a large body of replicable evidence to prove the point. Some of these differences are fascinating. Whether or not these differences are related to economic or technological development in these particular regions is still an open question–but people participating in the debate should be aware of these differences. Often they are not

This field of study has really exploded over the last decade; hopefully Nisbett will publish a second edition that incorporates this newer research. Readers might also be interested in the longer review of The Geography of Thought I wrote for the Stage last year).

That is it! This is the time of year people start posting book lists as Christmas gift recommendations. I suppose this list is good as any I might come up with, especially if comparative macro-history is your thing (and lets face it, if you are reading the Stage it probably is. Macro-history is what we do here). 

On the odd chance that macro-history is not your kind of thing, I also invite you to review the books listed in “Quantum Libraries”  and the bolded items in “Every Book I Read in 2013” for some excellent books or novels on history, strategy, contemporary affairs, and other topics discussed here. 

Are there are any books you recommend for the holidays?

5 thoughts on “Macro-History: A Few Books”

  1. Interesting, especially the longer essay on Geography of thought. I think I will order that book.

    Right now, I am reading the biography of Rockefeller that was recommended by High Hewitt on his show last week. Also reading Halberstam’s “The Fifties,” although I was put off a bit at the start by his leftist bias. I tend to read multiple books at the same time and also have Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times.”

    Others are stacked up including Flying Fortress and a book on P 38s.

    I usually do a review on Amazon so they can be found but Amazon has made it much harder to find them.

  2. The Smil book on energy builds on work by ecologist Howard Odom and others. I worked around Odom at the University of Florida back in the 1970s and his thinking has had profound effect on my worldview.

    I often surprised when people don’t understand what seems obvious – life is but a process that turns energy into order.

    I’d like to come back to Smil’s book soon – as soon as I finish the “Geography of Thought” book I just ordered for my Kindle.

  3. Funny that you say that mention Odum’s book Environment, Power, and Society Whitehall. Smil mentioned it in an interview where a reviewer asked him for his favorite books (he declined to answer, but said something to the effect of “this Odum book will make you think”) so i went ahead and ordered it. I have spent a 30 minutes or so looking at Odum’s charts and visualizations, but I have not been able to sit down and read the book.

    I still considered adding it to this list though. Just on the basis of the charts alone.

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