Some last minute Christmas book presents

December 15, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Lucy Gray asked in comments for some recommended reads for last minute presents. Be careful what you wish for, but where to start? I picked 5 criteria for this completely personal selection:

  1. Books that changed my life (as per this 2015 lecture in the wonderfully bibliophile Barcelona)
  2. Books that make it to my ‘special shelf’ (see pic – the middle one)
  3. Best reads from the last few years – recency matters (a bit)
  4. Books that are readable – not nice to inflict dense tomes on your friends at Christmas
  5. No books by me (unusual outburst of authorial reticence – won’t last long) but have to have been reviewed on the blog (hence links)

What emerges from these competing demands? I’ve grouped these 16 books v roughly into 5 thematic areas (with lots of overlap, obvs):


Bury the Chains: timeless classic on the iconic activist campaign against the UK slave trade, still inspiring some of Oxfam’s top campaigners two centuries later.

New and Old Power: at the other end of the timeline, a great analysis of the power of digital activism


The Revenge of Power: trying to disentangle the roots of the contemporary political malaise

The Gun, The Ship and the Pen: fascinating insight into the rise of constitutions as a ‘political technology’

How China Escaped the Poverty Trap: Yuen Yuen Ang’s superb study of the politics behind China’s take-off

The Aid Lab: Why Bangladesh is such a positive outlier on development

Radical Help: Lessons from trying to reform the local state in the UK

Building State Capability: the Harvard PDIA crew’s guide to state reform

Aid and Development

Solferino 21: Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the 21st Century: great guide to the history, present and possible futures of conflict and humanitarianism

The Idealist: brilliant book about Jeffrey Sachs

Systems Thinking

Thinking in Systems: Donella Meadows’ classic guide to what all that stuff about systems thinking actually means

The Power of Positive Deviance: great intro to one my favourite Cinderella issues in development. Why isn’t everyone doing it?

New Economics

Doughnut Economics. Need I say more. Instant classic from a profound and inspiring thinker and activist

Anything by Ha-Joon Chang, including his most recent book, Edible Economics (for foodies – come for the economics, stay to enjoy my humiliation in the chapter on chilis) or 23 things they don’t tell you about Capitalism

And given the 2018 outcry over Stefan Dercon’s male-only ‘sausagefest’ reading list, I’ve just gone back and checked: I make it 11 male authors, 8 female authors, 5 people of colour. Could do better, but improving…..

Please add your own. That enough to be going on with, Lucy?

December 15, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. For everyone who enjoyed “How Change Happens” by one of our favourite authors, try The Rule of Laws: a 4000 year quest to order the world, by Fernanda Pirie, an anthropology of law (yes, it is a thing) professor at Oxford University. Highly readable, and shows how rulers throughout recorded history have proclaimed their allegiance to justice, while not actually delivering it… You definitely don’t need to be a lawyer to read it Duncan…
    and best wishes for the festive season!

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