Henri Pirenne – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade
Of Pirenne’s three best-known books, also including Mohammed and Charlemagne and Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, this one, from 1925, is probably the strongest on its analysis of institutions and how they changed over time. The Pirenne Thesis is essentially that economic isolation caused the downfall of Roman civilization. Not barbarians, or Christianity, or decadence, as many other historians argue. It was a combination of economics and closed cultural attitudes among Europe’s Mediterranean neighbors. Centuries later, a gradual return to economic and cultural openness led to the high medieval ages, and eventually the Renaissance. Pirenne’s line of thought can easily be extended to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age, and today’s debates over trade and immigration, where Pirenne has most influenced this writer.
This book focuses on the rise of the city. Cities require a lot of support, and do not emerge fully formed out of a vacuum. They have numerous economic and cultural preconditions. One of the major ones was shaking off feudal shackles. This was a long, gradual process with many degrees. It was a spectrum, not an on/off switch. City residents were often former serfs; remember the famous saying, “city air makes one fee.” This was a legal concept, not just an attitude. An escaped serf who lived a year and a day without being captured was legally freed.
City residents answered to neither king nor lord, at least during the period Pirenne studies in this book. But there was more to the story of cities than a simple rejection of feudal authority. City workers did not grow their own food. They relied on specialized work and trade with outside farmers to put food on the table. This was not possible without requisite population density, infrastructure, and a cultural openness to commerce and technology.
Most societies are neophobic; city life required almost a neophilia. Once this happened to a small degree, a virtuous circle emerged. Improved productivity made people more prosperous and more accepting of bourgeois social norms. This further reinforced the process, and so on. This mishmash of factors, with arrows of causality pointing every which way, are why people began to live in cities rather than farms and villages, eventually paving the way for modernity.
John Tamny – The End of Work
John is a friend, former colleague, and occasional editor of mine. His enthusiasm and optimism are infectious. Rather than pushing papers across a desk or standing at an assembly line, every year there are more and more careers opening up for people passionate about sports, cooking, writing, the arts, and even video games. This is because growing mass prosperity makes such jobs possible. So long as government uses a relatively light approach to taxation and regulation, this process will continue. As general prosperity grows, so will the number of possible “passion jobs” that pay well enough to put food on the table.
Brad Stone – The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
More Amazon’s corporate history than Bezos’ biography, though it does discuss his life story and how he came to his approach to business and management, and what he hopes to do with his wealth. As an avid sci-fi fan, his interest in space exploration is more than skin deep, though his plans for his Deep Blue company are still unclear.
Lots of good stuff in here about innovation, competition, and the pluses and minuses of Bezos’ severe office culture and his unusual, and refreshing, emphasis on the very long term. Students of Schumpeterian creative destruction will find this book to be almost a case study.
Joseph Schumpeter – Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
Schumpeter was famously pessimistic about capitalism’s long-term prospects. But he was equally dismissive of Marxian socialism as a viable replacement. He instead foresaw a long slide into Fabian-style socialism-lite. Such a system is benign and boring for the most part, which seems harmless enough.
The trouble is that prosperity comes from taking risks–starting a business, inventing new products or business models, and displacing the old and replacing it with something better. People seem to prefer safe mediocrity to risking excellence, and in the long run, Schumpeter thinks that is what people will get.
A lot of people hope Schumpeter was wrong. He seems to have hoped so, at least.
Schumpeter also outlines his famous theory of creative destruction, which is easily his most influential idea.
Haughty in tone with occasional flashes of wit, this 1942 book is a classic for a reason, though I can only hope its flaws are deeper than I suspect they actually are.
Michael Ruhlman – Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
This one belongs in the small pile of Most Interesting Books of the Year. It is a fun and informative look at an underappreciated institution of modern life: the grocery store.
Ruhlman combines Deirdre McCloskey’s appreciation of progress and seeming inanities that aren’t, with an appreciation of the entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking that go into a seemingly hum-drum industry.
Ruhlman spent a great deal of time with the brothers who run Heinen’s, a mid-size grocery chain based in Cleveland, and shares their insights on a changing business. His late father, who was fascinated by grocery stores and changed with them over time, also looms large.
Along the way Ruhlman dives into the surprisingly interesting history of grocery stores, and speculates how they might be changing in the future. Maybe staples and non-perishables will soon be mostly delivery-based from companies like Amazon or Peapod, while traditional grocery stores will shift to hosting specialized fresh food departments–a little like the separate butchers’ and bakers’ shops of the old days.
Ruhlman also talks to farmers, livestock producers, and hopeful purveyors of new niche products such as energy bars and salads, along with a few natural-food and nutrition quacks. Refreshingly, Ruhlman mostly calls them what they are.
While Ruhlman rightfully decries the faddishness of many diet and nutrition trends, he is not entirely immune to food ideology himself. At one point he unironically compares breakfast cereals to nuclear weapons–don’t tell north Korea! A genuinely enjoyable read on a surprisingly important subject, despite its occasional faults. Steve Horwitz reviewed the book in more detail here.
Tim Peake – Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space
A book-length Q&A session with an astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station. The tone is friendly and conversational, and the questions are good—Peake drew from public responses using the Twitter hashtag #askanastronaut.
His answers cover everything from training, liftoff, the various irks and quirks of life on the ISS, from food to using the bathroom, what space smells like, what happens when you sweat inside a spacesuit in zero-gravity, and the scary thrill of reentry. I can see this book appealing to younger space enthusiasts, too.
Walter Isaacson – Steve Jobs
A biography of the Apple co-founder. Isaacson captures Jobs’ multifaceted character. Jobs created life-changing innovations that improved millions of lives in fields as diverse as hardware, software, movies, music, and retail. He cofounded what would become the world’s most valuable company, and untold thousands of jobs. His minimalist design aesthetic has influenced countless other industries.
But Jobs had an artist’s difficult temperament, wasn’t much of a father, and could be hurtful to people he loved and who loved him. His odd new age beliefs are partly to blame for his likely avoidable death from pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed at an early and likely treatable stage, but insisted on holding off medical treatment for nearly a year, preferring instead such measures as an alternative diet. Jobs was a great man, but not a good one in all ways.