5 Great Books to Start Learning Economics

It’s a question faced by anybody who’s ever taught introductory courses in economics, and it’s a question that faces anybody who has tried to start learning economics – and it’s high time I tried answering it.

What follows is a very brief description of five books that I think fit the bill: each of these are books that serve as a very good introduction to the subject.

None of them, it should be said, are stand-alone (almost no book ever is). You will need to read many more books to get a feel for the subject. But these are very useful gateway drugs.

This post will simply introduce each book in a paragraph, no more. The title of the book will be linked to the relevant Amazon India page (not affiliate links). Over the next five days, I’ll add a separate blog post about each of these books, and finish the series with books that almost made the cut.

  1. The Undercover Economist: This is a book written by Tim Harford, and is my preferred response when I’m asked “Have you read Freakonomics?” (Yes, but have you read “The Undercover Economist”?). The book is written the way I think great textbooks about economics ought to be written: they begin with real life conundrums and use economic tools to probe at these conundrums, rather than begin with a dry diagram or set of equations, and put the real world application in a “box”. He deal with questions ranging from why coffee costs so much at airports, and ponders the question of how China grew so rich as well. Written in an easy, accessible style, it is a great introductory book to the subject.
  2. Economics, A Very Short Introduction: I came across this book via a blog post written by Brad DeLong, in which he mentioned that he uses an excerpt from this book as a way to get people interested in thinking about economics. I couldn’t agree more: this is probably the best, thoughtful way to start thinking about “big picture” economics. But there’s one caveat: if you are just starting to learn economics, do not bother reading beyond the prologue, which is the first fifteen pages or so. Then spend a good six months or so reading other stuff about economics, and then come back and tackle the rest of the book. But Becky and Desta will be my friends forever – unforgettable characters.
  3. The Little Book of Economics: Greg Ip is the only person I know of whose pocket money, when he was a child, was linked to inflation. This made him a very keen student of economic theory (you might almost say he was incentivised to study economics), and that is probably a causal factor in he writing this book. Again, as with Harford’s book, Ip begins with stuff we can all observe around us, and asks “Why is this so?” – and then uses tools from the economist’s toolkit to tackle these problems. The focus is rather more on so-called “macroeconomics”, but that doesn’t make the book any less interesting. (By the way, if you’re now tempted to ask which of these I should read, the answer is “all”.)
  4. Discover Your Inner Economist: Tyler Cowen is the world’s most prolific blogger by some magnitude, and he also makes the time to write some extremely thought-provoking books, and this is one of them. How much should you pay/tip your dentist (if at all)? Should you pay your daughter to help with the household chores (short answer: no)? Should I finish every book I buy (short answer:no)? These, and other such questions are dealt with in the book in a Cowenish, non-whimsical way that still ends up being entertaining and enlightening.
  5. Day to Day Economics: This book is perhaps more applicable to Indian students than to those from other parts of the world, but Satish Deodhar writes a very accessible book about the Indian economy and it’s workings. It is the closes to being a conventional textbook out of the five I have recommended here, but I mean that in a good way. You will understand much more about the Indian economy specifically for having read this book, and it is well worth  your time if you are beginning your journey as an economics student.
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