Book Review: The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson

October 10th, 2009

I’m a big fan of money.

I don’t just mean in the mundane “it’s nice to spend sense”. Money is a profoundly weird, incredible invention. It is ultimately very hard to explain money, and hard to see how it ever really came into use. The story of money is incredibly interesting.

Unfortunately, that’s not the book that Niall Ferguson has written. Rather than being the story of money, the book focuses on the development of financial markets. Bonds, shares and insurance. Fortunately, that’s a big a field to cover. As with his previous books, the scholarly approach that Ferguson takes gives the details that bring the story to life, although his approach sometimes removes complications to tell a simpler, more coherent story.

This isn’t the same as Niall’s previous books. The list of topics is actually somewhat eclectic: cash money, bonds, stock market bubbles, insurance, real estate markets, public pension schemes, and international financial systems. This is probably a product of the book being linked to a TV series (a pretty good one, actually), so some breadth of topic was needed in order to sustain interest. But that breadth comes at the cost of depth, especially by contrast to some of Niall’s other books. His history of World War I, for instance, goes into fantastic depth on topics such as the bond market’s movements prior to the declaration of war.

I probably would have preferred a book that was more along the lines of his previous work. That’s because I work in this field, and I find it very interesting. But it’s nice to see his voice and tone translated to a more accessible form. So while ultimately I hoped for another book, it’s a book that is easier for me to recommend to others as a result.