6 Tips on How to Read Old Economics Books

It is one thing to pick up a book and read it and a different thing to actually understand it.

It is one thing to pick up a book and read it and a different thing to actually understand it. Attempting to read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) or other old texts will give many lay readers a headache. The main reason for this confusion is the incomprehensible “King James” English in which those works were written. As a result, students rely on professors’ interpretations of some key concepts during lectures and focus on reading more contemporary literature, which is easier to read.

However, there is a way to read these pioneering books yourself and actually have fun in the process. Studying the forefathers of economics is key to understanding how the science evolved. You can find that some of the main problems of today—from protectionism to crony capitalism—were some of the key issues debated over 200 years ago, as well. The following instructions are meant for students or simply the layman economist. However, certain bits (especially the first point) may come in handy for the well-established individual in the profession, as well.

1. Read Abridged/Modernized Versions

An excellent source of old economic texts that have been translated into modern English is Early Modern Texts (EMT). It is a completely free website run by former university professor Jonathan Bennett. You can find texts such as The Wealth of Nations (1776), The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and On Liberty (1859), as well as other classics, all written in a more understandable way. These works are incredibly difficult to read in their original form, and even the most highly-skilled professor of English literature would find them to be a challenge.

All of this is done while trying to keep the text in its authentic form as much as possible.

Dr. Bennett also provides commentary throughout the text and explains certain archaic words so the reader is even more comfortable during the reading. All of this is done while trying to keep the text in its authentic form as much as possible. Certain parts are also omitted that may not be as relevant for the average reader. There are numerous other sources to find abridged editions. For example, Oxford University Press recently published an abridged version of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867).

2. Chapter Summaries

Another great source that helps explain old literature chapter by chapter is Course Hero. Before I found out about EMT, I would attempt to read each chapter of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) and then read the chapter summary on Course Hero to better understand certain bits I found difficult to grasp in my initial reading. Alternatively, reading the chapter summary before reading the actual text in order to be familiar with it beforehand also works.

Chapter summaries are a great way to summarize parts of the book that are difficult to read, as well as to have a better understanding how the book progresses since chapter summaries usually make connections to earlier parts of the book (remember that these are non-fiction books and thus there are no spoilers if you read a chapter summary ahead). Other websites such as MRUniversity and Shmoop offer similar services.

3. Focusing on Key Concepts

Most early books on economics run well into 800-1,000 pages. If you’ve ever read older fictional literature, especially Victorian-era, you might have noticed that the writers of that period really enjoyed writing long sentences. One of the reasons for this is that they were usually paid by publishers by the word/letter. Unfortunately, the same also holds for non-fiction literature. There is no need to unnecessarily dwell on an unimportant chapter of a book that is difficult to understand to begin with. For example, Smith spends a large chunk of Chapter 11 in his book talking about the history of silver prices. The idea is to read efficiently, not to read as many pages as possible just for the sake of reading.

It is purely a historical account and not related to monetary theory. As such, it is pretty tedious to read (it is also omitted in the modernized version by EMT). On the other hand, going in-depth about the concept of the invisible hand is indispensable in fully understanding Smith’s views and the overall way the free market works. Use Investopedia or similar sources to get the key concepts out of the book when you feel you are stuck. The idea is to read efficiently, not to read as many pages as possible just for the sake of reading.

4. Read About the History of Economic Thought

Going through a book about the history of economic thought is a great way to read a more understandable version of some more complex ideas. Oftentimes, apart from giving a purely historical account, these books compare the views of several economists, thus allowing the reader to see the direct contributions each one of them made to the field. In addition to focusing on key players like Smith and Keynes, these books are fairly detailed and also look at certain “underdogs,” such as Sismondi, or leaders wholly unrelated to the field of economics that made important contributions, such as Protestant Reformer John Calvin.

Lionel Robbins’s History of Economic Thought (1998) and Murray Rothbard’s two-volume An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995) are often considered to be classics within this genre.

5. Do Not Focus Solely on Economics

Economics was not taught as a formal subject until 1805, and as such, there are not as many books from this period that are pure economics. However, works from other disciplines touched upon economic matters indirectly.

Law:

Frederic Bastiat – The Law (1849)

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – The Common Law (1881)

Politics:

Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

John Locke - Two Treaties on Government (1689)

History:

Lord Acton – The History of Freedom (1907)

Benjamin Constant – “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns” (1819)

Philosophy:

John Locke – A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)

David Hume – Of the Balance of Trade (1752)

6. Be Familiar with the Times

When Adam Smith wrote his magnum opus, mercantilism was at the forefront of trade policy. It was an active form of protectionism that wanted to keep as much gold in the country as possible. Smith’s work debunked the idea that gold equated to wealth and focused on the production of goods, instead. Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures (1791) is often considered to be the mercantilist manifesto. Therefore, being familiar with the times in which the book was published would be helpful to grasp its concepts. Paul Johnson and Neill Ferguson are two great contemporary historians who touch on economic matters throughout their writings.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) is a prime example of a book that uses many historical examples to demonstrate certain points to the reader. Being familiar with knowledge of how modern-day Italy was governed at the time, the Medici Family, and various local rules are indispensable in better understanding such a timeless classic.

Further Reading

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