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Top 7 Books to Learn More About a (Sustainable) Economy for Beginners

Studying the financial markets with a background in communication science is not very common in my field of research. Wherever I meet people and I start talking about my project, people look at me with suspicion. The question follows: “How come you’re interested in finance and investments?”


I usually then answer that my interest in how the economy works has somehow always been there. To be honest, I think it has already started when I was a child and I was watching the daily news on TV (Tagesthemen) with my parents and I was asking my dad what a “share” is and how the stock market works. What is more, I think the fact that I started studying when the Global Financial Crisis hit Germany in 2008/2009, accompanied by extensive media coverage, might have influenced my affinity to financial topics.


However, given that I decided to study media and communication back in 2009, I have had to acquire all my knowledge about the economy and the financial markets through self-study.

In fact, many people that I have met in the past years told me that they are interested in the financial markets and the economy as well, but that they do not know where to start reading or studying. Hence, this is why I decided to create this blog post.


The following recommendations of books are based on my readings from the past years (no sponsorship). I have composed a list of books that I have personally found most insightful and inspiring for my work and of which I think they might also be helpful for you to gain a basic understanding of the economy.



Foundation Knowledge

To start with, there are two books that I have encountered during a research stay at USC Annenberg while taking the course “Money, Markets and Media” by Gabriel Kahn, an experienced financial and business journalist. First, there is Greg Ip’s “The Little book of Economic”. The book provides a basic understanding of economic concepts such as inflation, unemployment, international

trade and finance, and gives hands-on examples from the American economy, written in an accessible and comprehensive way.


  • Greg Ip: The Little Book of Economics, Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010, 272 pages


Second, there is “The Undercover Economist”, written by Tim Harford, a well-known columnist from the Financial Times and NPR’s Marketplace. In his book he unravels the mysteries of how money works in our society, such as the health care system in the U.S., Starbuck’s pricing system, or cross-town traffic in American cities.


  • Tim Harford: The Undercover Economist, Random House, 2007, 265 pages


The last book that I recommend for reading up on basic concepts dealing with the stock market is written by André Kostolany, an Austrian-Hungarian stock expert who became particularly famous in Germany after having successfully invested in the reconstruction of Germany after World War II. Although the book might be a bit outdated and partly biographical of Kostolany’s life as an investor, I consider it to be a useful source for basic information and facts about the stock exchange and the financial markets—even today.


  • André Kostolany: Kostolanys Börsenseminar. Für Kapitalanleger und Spekulanten, Econ Tb., 1996, 248 pages



The Philosophy Behind the Economy


What some people are not aware of is that most of the economic thinkers from the past centuries have studied philosophy, history, classics, psychology or politics. Hence, to learn more about the origins of economic theories, one also has to learn about the backgrounds and lives of the great economic thinkers. One of the most famous books on the philosophies of economic thinkers is Robert Heilbroner’s “The Worldly Philosophers”. With more than two million copies sold around the world, it is said to be one of the most widely read book on the history of economics. The book covers the lives, historic times and ideas of economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Malthus, Marx or John Maynard Keynes.


  • Robert Heilbroner: The Worldly Philosophers. The Lives, Times and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers, Touchstone, 1999, 368 pages


For the German-speaking friends among us, there is also an excellent comparable book by Vera Linß. In her book “Die wichtigsten Wirtschaftsdenker”, she provides 60 portraits of major economists that have coined our economic thinking up until now. Linß describes the life circumstances of the economic thinkers, narrates how their economic ideas came about, and explains how their models and theories have influenced our economy in the past and even today.


  • Vera Linß: Die wichtigsten Wirtschaftsdenker, marixverlag GmbH, 2014, 256 pages



Sustainable Economy


However, given the fact that some of the economic theories from the past are based on the idea of unlimited growth and capitalism, I also wanted to read more about alternatives and how we can transform our economy towards a more sustainable future. One of the books that provides an extensive overview of real-world alternatives to our capitalist economic model is written by John Thackara. In his book “How to Thrive in the Next Economy”, he draws from a lifetime of travel, showing how communities throughout the world are creating new economies from a bottom-up approach. Examples include soil restorers and river keepers, seed savers, care farmers, food system curators, money designers and many more interesting projects that aim at making our economy more sustainable.


  • John Thackara: How to Thrive in the Next Economy, Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2015, 192 pages


In comparison, the book by Jeffrey D. Sachs reads more like a manifesto or a plan of action on how to move America to a sustainable future. Sachs takes a holistic approach in outlining how policy should be formed by economic, social and environmental objectives. He particularly pays attention to issues that are even today at the center of political discussion in the U.S., such as trade deals, energy policy, infrastructure, income inequality and the role of government. It lies in the core of his endeavour to show and argue reasonably how the U.S. could transition to a fair and environmentally sustainable economy


  • Jeffrey D. Sachs: Building the New American Economy, Columbia University Press, 2017, 152 pages



Reading List for 2020


Some of the books outlined above are a bit outdated by now. And given that I never stop learning about the economy, here is my reading list for books about the economy in 2020 - I can't wait to start reading.


  • Michael Lewis: The Fifth Risk, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018, 265 pages

  • Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism, Penguin, 2011, 304 pages

  • Abhijit V. Banderjee & Esther Duflo: Poor Economics, PublicAffairs, 2012, 320 pages

  • Abhijit V. Banderjee & Esther Duflo: Good Economics for Hard Times, PublicAffairs, 2019, 432 pages



I hope that these book recommendations have sparked your interest and might work as an entry point to learn more about the economy and the financial world.


However, if you’re not really a bookworm and you prefer more interactive formats, there are also plenty of online courses for cheap money on Udemy, Coursera or Edukatico that deal with financial topics. Furthermore, if you want to learn more about the basics of how the global investment industry works, I can also recommend the CFA Institute Investment Foundations Program.


Lastly, there are also some interesting movies and documentaries that deal with the economy, the financial markets, or various financial crises from the past decades such as:



  • The Big Short, movie, director: Adam McKay

  • Wall Street (1987), movie, director: Oliver Stone

  • Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, movie, director: Oliver Stone

  • Master of the Universe, documentary, director: Marc Bauder

  • Inside Job, documentary, director: Charles H. Ferguson

  • Dirty Money, documentary, Netflix TV series


Happy readings & viewings!


… and please leave a comment if you have some more recommendations for books, movies or courses about the economy or questions regarding my blog post or my research.

© 2020 by Nadine Strauß