by Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell, Jr. (1986; Basic). This was one of those books that had me saying to myself on almost every page, “Oh, of course, now I understand.” It explains in a relatively brief space, only 353 pages, the factors that allowed the West to surge ahead of the rest of the world in economic development. Let just one of these factors suffice for illustration: Because Europe was divided into many frequently warring nations, governments had not only to tolerate but to encourage economic innovation in order to gain an edge in the military competition. China, usually dominated by a unified elite, frequently suppressed innovation because it threatened the status quo.

Once in Golconda: A True Drama of Wall Street, 1920-1938

by John Brooks (1969; Wiley). John Brooks wrote wonderfully lucid business history for The New Yorker for many years (his history of the Ford Motor Company’s ill-fated Edsel is a classic). Here he tells the story of Wall Street between the wars, from the bear raid on the stock of the Stutz Motor Company of America to the fall of Richard Whitney, the former president of the New York Stock Exchange, sent to Sing Sing penitentiary for embezzlement. He brings one of the most exciting epics of Wall Street history to brilliant life. Curiously, the book did not do well when first published. The usual explanation is that the title, which the author insisted on, was too obscure (Golconda was a city in India where according to legend all who go there get rich). However, quality wins out in the end, and the book is still in print in both hardcover and paperback.

The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea

by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (2003; Random House). The idea, of course, is the corporation, a legal “person” with limited liability. Institutional history is not usually very exciting reading, but Micklethwait and Wooldridge take the reader briskly through the surprisingly interesting history of an institution without which neither this country (Virginia and Massachusetts were both founded by corporations, not by the English government) nor the modern world could have come into existence.

Money of the Mind: Borrowing and Lending in America from the Civil War to Michael Milken

by James Grant (1992; Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A history of credit also seems an unlikely candidate for pleasurable reading, but Grant writes so well and lards his story with such fascinating examples and characters that the book is both entertaining and very instructive regarding how many of America’s financial crises came about.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power

by Daniel Yergin (1991; Simon & Schuster). It won the Pulitzer Prize and deserved it. If ever there was an example of James Gordon Bennett’s notion of men substituting money for the sword as the chosen instrument in the battle for supremacy, the history of the oil industry is it. In 1854 oil was skimmed off ponds with rags and sold as a patent medicine. By 1900 Standard Oil was one of the most powerful economic forces in the world, and its principal stockholders were rich beyond counting. By the midtwentieth century nation-states were going to war to acquire and defend oil, so central had it become to the world economy. This is indeed an epic in the true sense of the word.

The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst

by David Nasaw (2000; Houghton Mifflin). Immortality is a fickle thing. Hearst’s public image will probably always be influenced by the overwhelming artistic and dramatic power of Citizen Kane. But while the movie is a masterpiece, it is not history, and Kane was no more than a grotesque caricature of the complex, brilliant, often pigheaded man who dominated the news media in the United States for half a century. Nor did Hearst’s real-life relationship with the film star Marion Davies in the least resemble Kane’s with the pathetically untalented Susan Alexander. When Hearst ran into deep financial trouble in the late 1930s, Davies lent him one million dollars. That is not, to put it mildly, the usual direction of the cash flow between mogul and mistress, and it’s evidence enough that Hearst must have been a far more interesting character than Kane was.

Railroad Transportation: Its History and Its Laws