Here begins, at the invitation of my friends from Financial Advisor, a series of very brief essays about some of my favorite books. These will not be up-to-the-minute reviews of just-published works – I do that exclusively for the subscribers to my newsletter Nick Murray Interactive – but rather books that I’ve found intriguing and useful over the years, as they may relate to the challenges of a financial/investment advisory career. 

My favorite president, Harry Truman, said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.” In just that sense, I’ve often found advisors handicapped by a less than ideally robust understanding of how this first and greatest capitalist democracy came, in a good deal less than two and a half centuries, to be a global economic hegemon and a continuing beacon to the world in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation.

The sure cure for this want of background is the single best one-volume history of this country that’s ever been written, or is ever likely to be. It’s the redoubtable John Steele Gordon’s An Empire of Wealth: the Epic History of American Economic Power, first published in 2004. Ours is a nation of staggering natural resources, but its greatest resource, Gordon finds, is the unlimited opportunity it presents its people to become: to be, to do and to own.

We are, for Gordon, infused with our uniquely American get up and go because we are a nation of people who literally got up and went: who left their birthplaces and everything they knew behind in order significantly to better themselves – not as caste, class or birth order dictated, but as their own talents manifested.

And from the Erie Canal through the transcontinental railroad, from oil to steel to the Internet, and especially from earned income through invested wealth to capital markets deeper, more transparent and more liquid than anything the world has ever dreamed of, Americans esteem and honor excellence – no matter that it must of necessity spawn a thoroughly meritocratic inequality of economic outcomes. In point of actual fact, we did build that.

Along the way, Gordon’s writing sparkles on virtually every page. Communicating the immensity of America’s resources and accomplishments, he often finds ways vividly to express magnitudes that would defeat a lesser writer. Here’s just one lovely example. In explaining how America’s vast Midwestern bread basket emerged from the densest imaginable primeval forest, he writes:

“Firewood production had a far larger impact on the land than did trees felled for lumber. The latter amounted to about twenty-five thousand square miles of forest, but fuel cutters denuded fully two hundred thousand square miles between 1811 and 1867, enough to make almost five billion cords of firewood. (To get some idea of just how much firewood that is, consider that five billion cords, neatly stacked, would cover the state of Connecticut to a depth of four feet.)”

John Steele Gordon is our finest popular historian, and An Empire of Wealth is his magnum opus, as consistently entertaining as it is enlightening. I cherish it, and you will too.

© 2013 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. Nick highlights new books, articles, research findings and academic papers in the “Resources” section of his newsletter, Nick Murray Interactive. To download a sample issue, visit, and click on “Newsletter.”