Beyond the economic textbook: Using popular nonfiction in the classroom

Looking for a way to take your class beyond the domain of the standard textbook? Promote the economic way of thinking by using nonfiction books on economics that engage your students while introducing them to real-world applications of the economic theories covered in your class. This annotated list of 10 popular nonfiction titles provides some suggestions to use with your students. Find assessment options and guided reading questions here .

Ten Popular Nonfiction Titles
  1. The Armchair Economist: Economics & Everyday Life, Steven E. Landsburg. New York: The Free Press, 1993. Landsburg uses examples from the mundane realities of our daily lives to introduce the reader to fundamental economic principles.

  2. Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know about Wealth and Prosperity, rev. ed. James D. Gwartney, Richard L. Stroup, Dwight R. Lee, and Tawni Ferrarini. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010. This book introduces readers to the 10 key elements of economic theory, seven major sources of economic progress, 10 elements of clear thinking about economic progress and the role of government, and 12 key elements of practical personal finance in this concise guide to economic reasoning.

  3. Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, P. J. O'Rourke. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998. This work has the reader accompanying O'Rourke on a witty trek around the world applying economic analysis to questions such as: What is wealth? How does someone get it? Why are some countries thriving while others are trapped in a cycle of poverty?

  4. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Americans' fast food culture and industry receives the kind of scrutiny reminiscent of the muckraking associated with Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Schlosser traces the fast food industry from its origins to its global reach at the dawn of the 21st century.

  5. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. People respond to incentives. This theme permeates Levitt and Dubner's unconventional take on human behavior throughout this highly popular yet controversial book. Chapter titles range from "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" to "How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?"

  6. The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World, Tim Harford. New York: Random House, 2008. Harford uses this work to examine how even seemingly irrational actions actually have logical underpinnings. Game theory and positive externalities are examined through the 2000 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the "knowledge spillover" of big city living. He also contends that rational behavior by individuals sometimes results in socially undesirable outcomes.

  7. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, Charles Wheelan. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 2002. This intriguing work makes microeconomic and macroeconomic theories accessible. Wheelan successfully conveys the complexities of markets, productivity and human capital, the Federal Reserve, and globalization. This book answers questions such as "Is my economy bigger than your economy?", "Who feeds Paris?", and "Why is Bill Gates so much richer than you are?".

  8. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich. New York: Owl Books, 2001. Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to illuminate the lives of the working poor. She worked as a waitress, home nursing aide, housecleaner, hotel maid, and Walmart employee in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota over the course of a few months in 1999 and 2000.

  9. Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotric Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. In this "sequel" to the super-popular Freakonomics, chapters address questions such as "Why Should Suicide Bombers Buy Life Insurance?", "How is a Street Prostitute Like a Department-Store Santa?", and "What Do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have in Common?".

  10. The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford. New York: Random House, 2007. Game theory, externalities, adverse selection, the role of prices in markets, and scarcity are just a few of the economic concepts that Harford tackles in this engrossing read. Harford has mastered the art of applying economic reasoning to contemporary issues in an entertaining format.

By Amy Hennessy, economic and financial education specialist, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
October 11, 2011