The most important economic historian ever to teach at U.C. Berkeley died last month: my old teacher David S. Landes taught at Berkeley starting in 1958 until Harvard lured him away until 1964.
From a student's perspective, he was ideal: he knew more than you did, was eager to share, could and did make everything interesting and entertaining, and -- best of all -- knew that his job was to help you learn how to think rather than to tell you what to write. Those of us who got to sit at his feet were lucky.
Those of you who did not can still be lucky. There are four books very much worth reading -- in order, I would rank them as Dynasties, Bankers and Pashas, Revolution in Time, and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. And there is a fifth book which is absolutely mind-blowing: The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present.
In email, another of my teachers, the University of Pennsylvania's Jeff Weintraub, asked a question:
Let's imagine that one wants to give students (or any other set of non-expert readers) a sweeping and illuminating introductory overview on the industrial revolution…. As far as I can tell, the best available single piece of this sort is still David Landes's 39-page ["Introduction"] to The Unbound Prometheus. At least, I'm not aware of a superior substitute that meets all those criteria…
There isn't one.
And Rich Yeselson asked:
As I look at [Landes's "The Unbound Prometheus"] as an interested non-specialist, it… changes the subject completely, engenders countless augmentations/rebuttals/extensions/revisions/reconsiderations. Foundational work. Like The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Or The Interpretation of Cultures (despite being an essay collection). Ground shifts. It would be interesting to think of just the postwar books in the social sciences/humanities that meet that standard. And how many? Six? Ten? 25?
After some further discussion with the History Department's Patrick Iber and others, I have come up with my own -- very persona l-- list of twenty such books, or sets of writings, written since 1930 that have shifted the ground on which I think. But it is a personal list: your will surely be different: