If I’d had a pound (or dollar if there’s any yanks about) everytime I had been asked that question, I’d have enough to buy… er, some sellotape or something. Nevertheless, a few people have asked, so here goes!
Undercover Economist (Tim Harford)
This book is probably read by the majority of economics applicants. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth reading, not only because it supports the A-Level syllabus almost perfectly providing examples and the history of many topics you’ll study but also because it really is an enjoyable read.As well as bringing economics to life it’s a great for those of you wanting a taster of what economics is really like (outside of the classroom) and for management or business students who aren’t doing economics for A-level.
As with most books, you’ll find a Contents page at the front. Don’t read it at face value though, being an economics student, this is how you should read it:
1. Who Pays for your Coffee? Introduction to attract the reader and lay out the basics featuring David Ricardo (remember that name)
2. What Supermarkets Don’t Want You to Know. Price discrimination, elasticity of demand and contestability
3. Perfect Markets and the ‘World of Truth’. Perfect Markets and (Elasticity of) Supply
4. Crosstown Traffic. Externalities, Market and Government Failure
5. The Inside Story. Symmetry of Information (Akerloff’s Lemons), Govt. Intervention
6. Rational Insanity. Ok, there’s no direct links to your studies here, but still a great chapter. Read it!
7. The Men Who Knew the Value of Nothing. Game Theory! (Microecon) – Read about the UK 3G license auctions, many questions on mobile companies have been set in the past (on the WJEC board at least) and it’s good to have background knowledge of this.
8. Why Poor Countries are Poor. Developmental Economics (Trade, Aid, Entrepreneurship…)
9. Beer, Chips and Globalisation. Globalisation (duh..), Ricardo’s theory of comparative (and absolute) advantage and specialisation, Types of Economies, Free Trade/Protectionism, CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) [ex. of market failure]
10. How China Grew Rich. Great chapter if you’re doing geography, but also: Incentives, the softer side of the dismal science.
So there you have it! That’s probably all of your economics syllabus covered in one book. This is one of the few books I’d actually recommend buying as after reading it now, you’re likely to want to come back to it and use some of its examples and case studies in your exams when the time comes. I did!
If you’ve finished the book, check out www.timharford.com and also his new book ‘The Logic of Life’.
Freakonomics (Stephen Dubner, Steven Levitt)
If you’re thinking Freakonomics is just like The Undercover Economist, think again! (Perhaps the only similarity is they both refer to Sudhir Venkatesh and his research in deprived neighbourhoods in the US).
You’ll struggle to find links to your studies when reading Freakonomics, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many would disagree, but I found it a refreshing read which shows the wide-reaching uses of economics and economic tools. You’ll find nothing about the economy in this book but you will learn stuff about names, sumo wrestlers, how the KKK worked and more. For this reason, it’s hard to say what the book is really about – perhaps you could say it takes two variables and investigates any links and determines if the variables are causally (one causes the other as opposed to the link just occurring by chance) related.
There’s a strong American slant to the book with a lot of stories/chapters being based in America which, for students in the UK at least, may be seen to be less relevant. So this book doesn’t link in with studies, but what it does do is that it introduces the economic way of thought and once again is a fun read.
Read it, but if time’s short, read the Undercover Economist first. For further reading, check out the Freakonomics blog where you’ll find some fresh content, sometimes written by Levitt and Dubner themselves.
Thinking Strategically (Avinash Dixit, Barry Nalebuff)
Just a quick mention of Thinking Strategically. I haven’t had the chance to finish it yet and it’s a lot more involved (matematically – requires you to think a bit more if you want to understand it properly) than the previous two books but it’s been recommended by many people when asked to suggest something that’s a good introduction to game theory.
It’s not one of those books you can read half asleep in bed (at least, not for me) if you want to get the most out of it. But if you’ve already read The Undercover Economist and Freakonomics and have an interest in game theory, it probably the next logical step.
The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)
It’s been a few years since I read this book but it’s main points are still engraved in my brain. First of all, it’s a psychology book. I’m not sure how many behavioural economists are out there, but on the whole, this is likely to be of more interest to those wishing to study an economics course that’s more on the business side or management. It’ll also be interesting (presumably) for sociology and psychology students.
The book covers a large range of topics from abortions (Roe vs Wade, also touched on in Freakonomics) to Sesame Street and educational programs for children to different types of people (Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen if I remember correctly). However, for me, the highlight of the book is the chapter on Hush Puppies marketing campaign undertaken by the firm Lambesis and how a small firm’s product spread like wildfire. There’s also the theory about ‘The Law of the Few.’ Check out the Wikipedia article about it if you’re not convinced it’s for you – it offers a pretty in-depth summary of the book.
On a side not, Gladwell’s new book called ‘Outliers’ is out now too. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it’s on my list. Will let you know what it’s like.
Hope you enjoy reading all that! Also - read books on the basis of you liking what it's about and finding out more - not on the basis of being able to list it's title in your personal statement - many peple will have read the first, maybe first two but the last one especially could give you some unique ideas which if you feel necessary, can be used as a point for discussion in interviews or your personal statement. If you've already read these books, fear not! In the next few days, I'll point you to some websites worth frequenting!