A social distancing reading list from Brookings Global Economy and Development

Bookshelf lined with books

During this unusual time of flexible schedules and more time at home, many of us may have increased opportunities for long-form reading. Below, the scholars and staff from the Global Economy and Development program at Brookings offer their recommendations for books to read during this time.

Book cover: The Nation CityMax Bouchet recommends

The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World

The toughest problems we’re facing today—climate change, migration crises, income inequality, and obviously pandemics—know no national borders. Their effects concentrate in cities. Yet, cities and their leaders often lack the resources and support to solve these challenges. Rahm Emanuel, who was mayor of Chicago from 2011 to 2019, gives his account of the growing role cities and their mayors play in global affairs. The book offers great insights on the international activities of cities and the job of being a mayor in the 21st century.

Book cover: AI SuperpowersBrahima S. Coulibaly recommends

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

In “AI Superpowers,” author Kai-Fu Lee writes on everything you need to know about the genesis of artificial intelligence, its evolution, and its geopolitics.


Book cover: The Narrow CorridorKemal Dervis recommends

The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

It is a long (more than 500 pages) but very readable book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, the authors of “Why Nations Fail,” with a huge amount of history from all over the world. Its length may be acceptable in these stay at home times. It reminds the reader that every generation has to win the battle for liberty and good governance again and again.

Book cover: A Man of Good hopePascaline Dupas recommends

A Man of Good Hope

This 2014 book by Jonny Steinberg tells the unimaginable but true life story of Asad, a Somalian refugee whom Steinberg meets in South Africa while preparing a book on xenophobia. Narrative nonfiction at its best, the book is a powerful introduction to the challenges and complexities faced by displaced populations and the many ways in which the international community fails to support them. A book that never leaves your mind after you’ve read it.

Book cover: PersepolisHelena Hlavaty recommends

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a two-part graphic memoir about the author’s experience coming of age in the time (and aftermath) of the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi’s vivid illustrations bring her experiences to life, effortlessly weaving together countless elements of the human experience across public and private spheres. A remarkably human perspective on a marked moment in history, no brief description can capture the full extent of Satrapi’s work!

Book cover: Extreme EconomiesGeorge Ingram recommends

Extreme Economies: Survival, Failure Future — Lessons from the World’s Limits

“Extreme Economies” by Richard Davies is an economic and sociological study of nine microeconomies: three economies that bounded back from disaster, three that collapsed, and three that provide a window into the future. Not a special focus of the book, but striking from a development perspective is the theme of the role of informal networks in cases of success, and their absence in collapse.

Book cover: ProsperityAddisu Lashitew recommends

Prosperity: Better Business Makes the Greater Good

Professor Colin Mayer’s “Prosperity” answers the timely question of what should be the purpose of business. It is an ambitious, rigorous work that canvases a broad set of topics on the purpose and governance of business. It is strongly anchored on history and yet decidedly forward-looking, tackling key questions on how the corporation should be renewed in order to meet the present needs of our societies.

Book cover: Wizard of the CrowPayce Madden recommends

Wizard of the Crow

Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s sprawling, comic, incisive novel—translated by the author to English from his native language, Gĩkũyũ—tells the story of a battle for control of a fictional African nation in the postcolonial era. In the process, the novel dissects the 20th-century experience of Kenya, and of Africa more broadly. Ngũgĩ uses magical realism and satire to great effect, providing as nuanced (and entertaining) an account of Africa’s history and possibility as any offered by a historian or analyst.

Book cover: Bury the ChainsJohn McArthur recommends

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves

Adam Hochschild provides a masterful account of how the leaders of the British abolitionist movement toiled for decades to bring about an end to slavery across the empire in 1834. Through so many highs and lows, the activists persisted in growing their coalition for justice into an unstoppable force. Whenever the world’s problems start to feel extra hard and intractable, this book can offer a deep reservoir of inspiration.

Book cover: How Asia WorksSebastian Strauss recommends

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region

“How Asia Works” is the closest thing you’ll find to a step-by-step recipe for economic development, with clear and falsifiable prescriptions for poor and rich nations alike. Studwell argues that efficiency considerations—important for developed economies—shouldn’t determine policy in poor countries, which must invest in learning before they can worry about efficiency. Their governments must proactively foster capital accumulation and technological learning. At the same time, rich countries must grant them the policy space they themselves once had, as developing nations cannot be expected to succeed without infant industry protection or state control of financial resources and international capital flows.