In spite of Niall Ferguson’s stated in The Ascent of Money to provide a simple explanation of the rise of capital from a promissory note for a bit of grain from the next babylonian harvest to a fiduciary system with central reserve banks, it comes off as more then a bit high brow. That’s fine with me, my brow tends to be plenty high. It includes several quite intellectual discussions including; a thorough comparison of financial evolution to natural evolution, a discussion of authors other then Bronowski that could have been used as the analogy in the title and more then a few british-style jokes (“Economists have predicted 9 of the last 5 recessions”).
I found the discussion of modern times fairly boring, mostly because I am aware of the current system and its problems. The discussion of history on the other hand was fascinating. Learning how stock markets evolved from trading floors for single, massive companies and how bonds ascended from the napoleanic wars is fascinating.
I’d recommend this book in two cases. First, if you’re a bit of a day trader and you want to learn the history of our current system (you really only need the first 60% and the last 10%). Second, if you’re feeling a little threatened by the world of finance and the way it has hurt the US (and other major) economy(ies) over the past few years. In this second case, the book will give you a firm understanding of the financial instruments at play and what exactly went wrong and might still go wrong in the future.
If you don’t want to invest the couple of weeks it takes to read this book, may I suggest the PBS documentary of the same title (all 4 one hour episodes are online). It’s hosted by the author himself and, though I haven’t seen it, seems to have received good reviews.