What's it all about?

THE ASCENT OF MONEY by Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane, £25)

What's the big idea?

Money. It's at the root not only of all evil, but of just about every major development in the past 3,000 years of human history - wars, revolutions, social and technological progress, the lot. The creation of money was every bit as important as the invention of the wheel, says Niall Ferguson, and one way or another high finance has been working away behind the scenes in every historical drama since; an argument that seems especially convincing right now.

Traders work on the floor of the Brazilian Mercantile and Futures Exchange 2008.

Traders work on the floor of the Brazilian Mercantile and Futures Exchange 2008.

Ferguson finished this book in May, but he hasn't been wrong-footed by the financial world going into complete meltdown since then. Quite the opposite — he anticipates the bursting of the credit bubble and even offers what is now an amazingly timely explanation of how it has happened.

From the first coins of ancient Mesopotamia to the rise of China and the credit crunch, via the Medicis of Renaissance Italy, the Scottish clergymen who created the first insurance company and the dynasty started by the first Nathan Rothschild, Ferguson provides a clear and masterful financial history of the world. He shows, for example, how the high-financial scam of a Scottish murderer resulted in the French Revolution, how the bond market settled the outcome of the American Civil War, and, chillingly, how a previous era of globalisation and prosperity was ended almost overnight by the surprise catastrophe of World War I.

Professor Niall Ferguson

Professor Niall Ferguson

So, what's new?

The emphasis on dosh as the prime mover behind the scenes of human history, plus the bang-on-cue analysis of how the money markets work — and how they sometimes, as now, go completely haywire. A new perspective thanks to the author's unique combination of historical expertise and financial knowledge.

How reader-friendly is it?

Often very, especially considering the subject. There are, inevitably, bits that will be eye-glazingly incomprehensible for those still stumped by collateralised debt obligations and the like. But this is also a book that accompanies an

upcoming series on Channel 4, so there is a lot for even the most innumerate layfolk as Ferguson makes the most of the high dramas of high finance.

Boffin rating

High. Not only has Ferguson been described as 'the most brilliant historian of his generation' by The Times, he's been rated as 'one of the world's 100 most influential people' by Time magazine. So he knows his stuff. And he teaches it rather brilliantly, too.

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