The Global Thinkers’ Book Club
Want to think like the world's best minds? Start by reading like them. The FP Global Thinkers' 20 most recommended titles.
1. Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (2009)
By Liaquat Ahamed
Recommended by Nancy Birdsall, Deepa Narayan, and Paul Ryan
Liaquat Ahamed profiles the four central bankers — in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States — who sought to reconstruct the global financial system after World War I. His findings, however, are not purely historical:
“As I write this in October 2008, the world is in the middle of one such panic — the most severe for seventy-five years, since the bank runs of 1931-1933 that feature so prominently in the last few chapters of this book.… Watching the world’s central bankers and finance officials grappling with the current situation — trying one thing after another to restore confidence, throwing everything they can at the problem, coping daily with the unexpected and startling shifts in market sentiment — reinforces the lesson that there is no magic bullet or simple formula for dealing with financial panics. In trying to calm anxious investors and soothe skittish markets, central bankers are called upon to wrestle with some of the most elemental and unpredictable forces of mass psychology. It is the skill that they display in navigating these storms through uncharted waters that ultimately makes or breaks their reputation.”
2. Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (2010)
By Ian Morris
Recommended by Gareth Evans, Joseph Nye, and Arvind Subramanian
Stanford University historian Ian Morris takes a look backward to answer the “burning question” of how long — and whether — the West will stay on top. His answer:
“The patterns established in the past suggest that the shift of wealth and power from West to East is inexorable. The transformation of the old Eastern core into a Western periphery in the nineteenth century allowed the East to discover advantages in its backwardness, and the latest of these — the incorporation of China’s vast, poor workforce into the global capitalist economy — is still playing out. Bungling, internal divisions, and external wars may hold China back, as they did so often between the 1840s and 1970s, but sooner or later — probably by 2030, almost certainly by 2040 — China’s gross domestic product will overtake that of the United States. At some point in the twenty-first century China will use up the advantages of its backwardness, but when that happens the world’s center of economic gravity will probably still remain in the East, expanding to include South and Southeast Asia. The shift in power and wealth from West to East in the twenty-first century is probably as inevitable as the shift from East to West that happened in the nineteenth.”
3. Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011)
By Niall Ferguson
Recommended by Sherry Rehman and Kenneth Rogoff
Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson (a 2010 Global Thinker) identifies six major causes for the West’s ascent, including the roles of representative government and modern medicine.
“The critical point is that the differential between the West and the Rest was institutional. Western Europe overtook China partly because in the West there was more competition in both the political and the economic spheres. Austria, Prussia and latterly even Russia became more effective administratively and militarily because the network that produced the Scientific Revolution arose in the Christian but not in the Muslim world. The reason North America’s ex-colonies did so much better than South America’s was because British settlers established a completely different system of property rights and political representation in the North from those built by Spaniards and Portuguese in the South.… European empires were able to penetrate Africa not just because they had the Maxim gun; they also devised vaccines against tropical diseases to which Africans were just as vulnerable. In the same way, the earlier industrialization of the West reflected institutional advantages.”
4. Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More (2011)
By Charles Kenny
Recommended by Bjorn Lomborg and Steven Pinker
Contrary to doomsayers, FP contributing editor Charles Kenny argues that advances in education, health, security, and human rights are improving life in the developing world.
“Despite counterclaims and hand wringing, things are getting better, everywhere. Rich countries may be getting richer faster than poor countries, and we may be unsure how to improve that situation, but poor countries and poor people aren’t stuck in the nightmare of an ever-growing and unsupportable population, living on bare subsistence. Instead, those countries with the lowest quality of life are making the fastest progress in improving it — across a range of measures including health, education, and civil and political liberties. The progress is the result of the global spread of technologies and ideas — technologies like vaccinations, and ideas like ‘you should send your daughter to school.’ And Third World governments, alongside aid agencies and nonprofits, have played a vital role in extending the reach of these technologies and idea.”
5. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011)
By Global Thinker No. 48 Steven Pinker
Recommended by Gareth Evans and Andrew Sullivan
Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker also has good news: Over the broad sweep of history, he finds, human violence has dwindled.
“For all the dangers we face today, the dangers of yesterday were even worse. Readers of this book (and … people in most of the rest of the world) no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishments on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor, beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends, and the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself.”
6. Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (2011)
By Sylvia Nasar
Recommended by Nancy Birdsall and Nouriel Roubini
Sylvia Nasar — acclaimed for her biography of mathematician John Nash — chronicles the emergence of modern economics, the dismal science that “transformed societies around the globe.”
“The notion that man was a creature of his circumstance, and that those circumstances were not predetermined, immutable, or utterly impervious to human intervention is one of the most radical discoveries of all time. It called into question the existential truth that humanity was subject to the dictates of God and nature. It implied that, given new tools, humanity was ready to take charge of its own destiny. It called for cheer and activity rather than pessimism and resignation. Before 1870 economics was mostly about what you couldn’t do. After 1870, it was mostly about what you could do.… Victorian intellectuals were obsessed with economics and an extraordinary number aspired to produce a great work in the field. Inspired by advances in natural sciences, they began to fashion a tool for investigating the ‘very ingenious and very powerful social mechanism’ that is creating not just unparalleled material wealth, but a wealth of new opportunities. Ultimately, the new economics transformed the lives of everyone on the planet.”
7. Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World (2010)
By Doug Saunders
Recommended by Paul Collier and Andy Sumner
Doug Saunders visits the outskirts of major cities around the globe, from Shenzhen to Sao Paulo, where the poor are moving in — and gaining a crucial foothold.
“We need to devote far more attention to these places, for they are not just the sites of potential conflict and violence but also the neighborhoods where the transition from poverty occurs, where the next middle class is forged, where the next generation’s dreams, movements, and governments are created. At a time when the effectiveness and basic purpose of foreign aid have become matters of deep and well-deserved skepticism, I believe that these transitional urban spaces offer a solution. It is here, rather than at the ‘macro’ state or ‘micro’ household level, that serious and sustained investments from governments and agencies are most likely to create lasting and incorruptible benefit.”
8. WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency (2011)
By Micah Sifry
Recommended by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Anne-Marie Slaughter
The rise of an increasingly open Internet culture is bigger than WikiLeaks, political analyst Micah Sifry argues — it’s about a “new chapter in human history.”
“Information flows more freely into the public arena, powered by seemingly unstoppable networks of people around the world cooperating to share vital data and prevent its suppression. Old institutions and incumbent powers are inexorably coming to terms with this new reality. The ‘Age of Transparency’ is here: not because one transnational online network dedicated to open information and whistle-blowing named WikiLeaks exists, but because the knowledge of how to build and maintain such networks is now widespread.… WikiLeaks is just one piece of a much larger continuum of changes in how the people and the powerful relate to each other in this new time — changes that are fundamentally healthy for the growth and strength of an open society. Secrecy and the hoarding of information are ending; openness and the sharing of information are coming.”
9. Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future (2010)
By Robert Bryce
Recommended by Terry Engelder and Gary Lash
Robert Bryce demystifies the allure of “going green.” Like it or not, he says, the future of energy is good old carbon.
“We use hydrocarbons — coal, oil, and natural gas — not because we like them, but because they produce lots of heat energy, from small spaces, at prices we can afford, and in the quantities that we demand. And that’s the absolutely critical point.… It may be fashionable to promote wind, solar, and biofuels, but those sources fail when it comes to power density. We want energy sources that produce lots of power (which is measured in horsepower or watts) from small amounts of real estate. And that’s the key problem with wind, solar, and biofuels: They require huge amounts of land to generate meaningful amounts of power.”
10. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011)
By Daniel Yergin
Recommended by Gary Lash and Bjorn Lomborg
In a long-awaited follow-up to his 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Prize, Daniel Yergin delivers a sweeping account of the past and future of energy geopolitics. (Tip: Keep an eye out for the story of Global Thinker No. 36 George P. Mitchell.)
“If this is to be an era of energy transition, then the $6 trillion global energy market is ‘contestable.’ That is, it is up for grabs among the incumbents — the oil, gas, and coal companies that supply the bulk of today’s energy — and the new entrants — such as wind, solar, and biofuels — that want to capture a growing share of those dollars. A transition on this scale, if it does happen, has great significance for emissions, for the wider economy, for geopolitics, and for the position of nations.”
11. The Lie of Nuclear Power (2011)
By Hiroaki Koide
Recommended by Mizuho Fukushima and Yuichi Kaido
After four decades of (largely ignored) anti-nuclear activism, Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, has seen a sudden spike in demand for his work this year, following Japan’s tsunami-induced nuclear meltdown. As of late September, The Lie of Nuclear Power — a Japanese-language, anti-nuke polemic — had sold 280,000 copies since its release in June.
12. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007)
By Naomi Klein
Recommended by Mizuho Fukushima and Yuichi Kaido
Naomi Klein posits that, over the past 50 years, free market fundamentalists have capitalized on the world’s worst disasters — from the ruthlessness of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet to the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war, and Hurricane Katrina.
“The idea of exploiting crisis and disaster has been the modus operandi of Milton Friedman’s movement from the very beginning — this fundamentalist form of capitalism has always needed disasters to advance. It was certainly the case that the facilitating disasters were getting bigger and more shocking, but what was happening in Iraq and New Orleans was not a new, post-September 11 invention. Rather, these bold experiments in crisis exploitation were the culmination of three decades of strict adherence to the shock doctrine. Seen through the lens of this doctrine, the past thirty-five years look very different. Some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market ‘reforms.'”
13. Keynes: The Return of the Master (2009)
By Robert Skidelsky
Recommended by Saskia Sassen and Martin Wolf
Robert Skidelsky — a political economist who also authored a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes — explains in this book why the “master” is still relevant.
“Keynes’s importance is not just a progenitor of ‘stimulus’ policies. Governments have known how to ‘stimulate’ sickly economies — usually by war — as long as they have known anything. Keynes’s importance was to prove a ‘general theory’ which explains how economies fall into slumps, and to indicate the policies and institutions needed to avoid them. In the current situation no theory is better than bad theory, but good theory is better than no theory. Good theory can help us avoid panic responses, and give us insight into the limitations of both markets and governments. Keynes, in my view, provides the right kind of theory, even though his is clearly not the last word on events happening sixty-three years after his death.”
14. Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)
By Walter Isaacson
Recommended by Terry Engelder and Condoleezza Rice
Before he wrote the biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson told the life story of another remarkable mind — Albert Einstein.
“Einstein’s life and work reflected the disruption of societal certainties and moral absolutes in the modernist atmosphere of the early twentieth century. Imaginative nonconformity was in the air: Picasso, Joyce, Freud, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others were breaking conventional bonds. Charging this atmosphere was the conception of the universe in which space and time and the properties of particles seemed based on the vagaries of observations. Einstein, however, was not truly a relativist, even though that is how he was interpreted by many, including some whose disdain was tinged by anti-Semitism. Beneath all of his theories, including relativity, was a quest for invariants, certainties, and absolutes. There was a harmonious reality underlying the laws of the universe, Einstein felt, and the goal of science was to discover it.”
15. Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (2011)
By Frank Brady
Recommended by Tyler Cowen and Kenneth Rogoff
Frank Brady, who knew Bobby Fischer for many years, records the American chess master’s astonishing rise to fame — and his baffling decline thereafter.
“Bobby was secretive, yet candid; generous, yet parsimonious; naïve, yet well informed; cruel, yet kind; religious, yet heretical. His games were filled with charm and beauty and significance. His outrageous pronouncements were filled with cruelty and prejudice and hate.… Bobby had an uneasy relationship with his extraordinary celebrity and ultimately grew to despise it. It was the public’s intrusive gaze that caused him, in later years, to lead a determinedly reclusive, almost hermetic life.… We may not — and perhaps should not — forgive Bobby Fischer’s twisted political and antireligious assaults, but we should never forget his sheer brilliance on the chessboard.”
16. Shah of Shahs (1982)
By Ryszard Kapuscinski
Recommended by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski recounts the decline of the last shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The book begins with the man who led the revolution that overthrew the shah: Ruhollah Khomeini.
“A small, flat, gray, charmless city, Qom lies a hundred miles south of Teheran in a vacant, wearying, parched, sunbaked desert.… It contains five hundred mosques and the nation’s biggest seminaries. Koranic scholars and the guardians of tradition quarrel in Qom; the venerable ayatollahs convene their councils there; Khomeini rules the country from Qom. He never leaves, never goes to the capital, never goes anywhere.… He’s moved to his daughter’s house, from whose balcony he appears to the crowds in the street below (usually, zealous pilgrims visiting the mosques of the holy city and, most important of all, the tomb forbidden to non-Muslims, of the Immaculate Fatima, sister of the eighth Imam Reza).”
Robert Lacey unfurls a complex portrait of modern-day Saudi Arabia, explaining the kingdom’s recent history and current struggles, while making a case for its growing global influence.
“Think of the new words that we have had to learn in the past thirty years: wahhabi, jihadi, Arab-Afghan, Desert Storm, fatwa, Al-Qaeda. What do they all have in common? Which nations supplied fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11? One of the largest groups of foreign fighters captured in Afghanistan? The second largest contingent at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp? Plus several hundred terrorists and suicide bombers in Iraq? Saudi problems have transformed the modern world. Saudi conflicts and growing pains got the twenty-first century off to a start that no one had anticipated, and we are still trying to work out what that means.”
18. Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future (2010)
By Stephen Kinzer
Recommended by Wadah Khanfar and Sherry Rehman
Stephen Kinzer proposes a new “power triangle,” uniting Iran, Turkey, and the United States, as the solution to Middle East troubles.
“The old triangle — actually two bilateral relationships, the United States with Israel and the United States with Saudi Arabia — served Washington’s interests well during the cold war. It has not, however, produced a stable Middle East. On the contrary, the region is torn by violence, hatred, terror, and war. Yet for economic as well as strategic reasons, the United States must remain engaged there. Its dilemma can be simply stated: America wants to stabilize the Middle East, but its policies are having the opposite effect. What new policies could America adopt to replace those that have failed? Here is one answer: First, build an ever-closer partnership with Turkey and, in the future, with a democratic Iran. Second, reshape relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia in ways that will serve their long-term interests and those of the United States — even if they protest.”
19. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (2011)
By Mohammed Hanif
Recommended by Abhijit Banerjee and Pervez Hoodbhoy
In Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif’s second novel, Alice Bhatti, the daughter of a sewer cleaner, takes a job as a nurse at a squalid Catholic hospital in Karachi upon her release from a reformatory. In the book’s opening, Alice prepares for her interview at the hospital, where she eventually finds corruption, misogyny — and love.
“Less than three minutes in front of the interview panel and Alice Bhatti knows in her heart that she is not likely to get the job advertised as Replacement Junior Nurse, Grade 4.… She has been in this room before but is dreading the prospect of sitting down on a chair and talking. She has always stood here and taken her orders: Have you cleaned the floor, Alice? Why have you not cleaned the floor? Who do you think will clean that blood on the floor, Alice? Your father? The room is a monument to pharmaceutical merchandising: the orange wall clock from GlaxoSmithKline, the calendar with blonde models in various stages of migraine from Pfizer Pain Management Systems, the box of pink tissues promising Dry Days, Dry Nights. The ornamented gold-framed verse from the Quran exhorting the virtues of cleanliness carries the logo of Ciba-Geigy: a housefly in its death throes.”
20. Open City (2011)
By Teju Cole
Recommended by Abhijit Banerjee and Saskia Sassen
Teju Cole’s debut novel — which New Yorker critic James Wood called “beautiful, subtle, and, finally, original” — tells the story of its narrator, Julius, a young, Nigerian-German psychiatrist-in-training prone to wandering the multicultural streets of New York City.
“One night, I simply went on and on, walking all the way down to Houston Street, a distance of some seven miles, and found myself in a state of disorienting fatigue, laboring to remain on my feet. That night I took the subway home, and instead of falling asleep immediately, I lay in bed, too tired to release myself from wakefulness, and I rehearsed in the dark the numerous incidents and sights I had encountered while roaming, sorting each encounter like a child playing with wooden blocks, trying to figure out which belonged where, which responded to which. Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks. My futile task of sorting went on until the forms began to morph into each other and assume abstract shapes unrelated to the real city, and only then did my hectic mind finally show some pity and still itself, only then did dreamless sleep arrive.”
8 More Books Recommended — and Written — by FP‘s Global Thinkers
1. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (2011)
By Global Thinkers No. 60 Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Recommended by No. 66 Barry Eichengreen
2. Empire of the Mind: The Dawn of the Techno-Political Age (2012)
By Global Thinker No. 83 Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt
Recommended by No. 83 Alec Ross
3. The Plundered Planet: Why We Must — and How We Can — Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (2010)
By Global Thinker No. 56 Paul Collier
Recommended by No. 55 Martin Wolf
4. Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System (2011)
By Global Thinker No. 66 Barry Eichengreen
Recommended by No. 25 Kenneth Rogoff
5. That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World We Invented and How We Can Come Back (2011)
By Global Thinker No. 58 Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum
Recommended by No. 13 Bill Gates
Gates on That Used to Be Us: “I’m a big fan of Tom’s stuff, and I think he makes some key points … that we can renew our excellence not so much with the things others have invented, but rather with things that we used to do quite well ourselves.”
6. The Future of Power (2011)
By Global Thinker No. 64 Joseph Nye
Recommended by No. 30 Nouriel Roubini
7. Le triomphe de la cupidité (2011)
(In English, 2010’s Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy)
By Global Thinker No. 33 Joseph Stiglitz
Recommended by No. 100 Stéphane Hessel
8. Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance (2011)
By Global Thinker No. 97 Arvind Subramanian
Recommended by No. 65 Nancy Birdsall