Now is the winter of our (crypto) discontent—but it doesn’t have to be. As we enter the heart of literal winter, let’s let the SEC and the brutal market take out the trash while we accumulate the greatest asset of all: knowledge.
There are already plenty of serviceable guides to the best books about blockchain and crypto specifically, and the list isn’t long. Nathaniel Popper’s Digital Gold and Michael Casey and Paul Vigna’s The Truth Machine are both highly readable, thorough treatments of the potential of crypto and blockchain. We’ll make special mention of BREAKER senior writer Brian Patrick Eha’s How Money Got Free, certainly the most comprehensive history of the first decade of crypto.
But what if you need a gift for someone who wants to go even deeper? True blockchain leaders dream of fundamentally reshaping the economics, technology, and media of our world, and to do that, you have to understand those complex systems down to their roots.
This is the list for those readers.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles MacKay
First published in 1841, this is still one of the most important books ever written about mass psychology, in particular when it comes to the intersection of crowds and markets. MacKay’s most famous analysis is of the Dutch tulip mania, an early commodity bubble nearly as unmoored from reality as cryptocurrency is often accused of being.
But MacKay’s purview is much broader than that, encompassing a range of mass fads and hysterias, from witch hunting to quack medicine. In part, his book can be read as a chronicle of the emergence of mass society itself, thanks to the 19th-century ascendance of mainstream literacy, mass-market newspapers, electrical telegraphy, and the railroad. Anyone who watched the rise of ICO scammers, enabled by the hype machine of social media and shoddy news websites, will recognize the roots of modern media’s failings in MacKay’s 180-year-old book.
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson
This sweeping 2008 history is at least as concerned with the history of finance as it is with money. It covers the emergence of structures like bonds, insurance, and asset markets—including bubbles. The book was later turned into a multi-part documentary series for the U.K.’s Channel 4, which might be a more accessible way for most to absorb the ideas in this 450-page monster. But it’s hard to beat the mind-expanding potential of diving deep into Ferguson’s full chronicle.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber
Graeber is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, and an activist who was deeply involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011-2012. His skepticism of global finance, and his fundamental anti-government anarchist ethos, share significant common ground with the libertarians and cypherpunks of the cryptosphere. His beliefs are usefully distinct, though—for instance, he argues in Debt that monetary markets themselves, not just tax systems, are essentially imposed by the state.
But Debt is first and foremost a work of meticulous historical research that will massively enrich how you think about money as a social phenomenon. Graeber sets out to debunk the assumption, widespread among economists, that money emerged through a process of substitution for barter. By this thinking, people in pre-money societies traded sheep for apples, but grappled with the problem of aligning their needs until someone came up with the idea of using shells, stones, or beads as a medium of exchange.
Graeber demonstrates convincingly that this story is an economists’ fairy-tale. Instead, he shows, in sometimes excruciating detail, that the first money emerged from debt and credit records kept by traders and officials, mostly likely in today’s Middle East. Those records, when traded, slowly became what we know as money. It’s a profound rebuttal to longstanding conventional wisdom in economics, and a great read for shaking up your own thinking about the lifeblood of our economy.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, by Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” The concept was widespread as recently as two decades ago, but seems to have faded somewhat from our collective consciousness. That’s a shame, particularly if you regard blockchain as a fundamental innovation in how humans communicate and connect.
McLuhan’s catchphrase summed up a nuanced argument. According to McLuhan, innovations in media technology, from the alphabet to television, have over centuries fundamentally reshaped the basic structure of societies. In this 1962 book, he focused on the impact of the mechanical printing press on European society in particular. Specifically, he argues that print allows the abstraction of ideas from bodies, in turn opening the way for individualism, rationality, and the Enlightenment.
It’s a tough call whether this or 1964’s more general Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man are the best place to start your exploration of McLuhan, but either one will introduce you to his unique style of thought. It may be the best framework for thinking about the deep implications of blockchain, with its unique combination of speed, geographic reach, and decentralization.
The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers, by Robert Heilbroner
This is it: almost certainly the greatest single-volume history of economic thought, and a perfect gift for any average Jane who can’t quite find the time to read everything from The Wealth of Nations to Das Kapital. Heilbroner weaves the core ideas of history’s greatest economists together with their biographies, including their historical context. The profiles stretch from Adam Smith to Thomas Malthus to free-spending John Maynard Keynes.
The book, published in 1999, doesn’t encompass more modern thinkers, for instance leaving aside bitcoin godheads Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. But Heilbroner, as a humanist, might not have had much use for them anyway: in a postscript to a later edition, he mounted a lengthy critique of the growing statistical, rationalist, and pseudo-scientific bias of economics. That’s a critique that cryptoeconomics types, who sometimes think humans are just a predictable cog in their great machine, need to hear.