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A Splendid Exchange

How Trade Shaped the World
Written by: William J. Bernstein
Narrated by: Mel Foster
Categories: History, World

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Publisher's Summary

Adam Smith wrote that man has an intrinsic "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another". But how did trade evolve to the point where we don't think twice about biting into an apple from the other side of the world?

In A Splendid Exchange, William J. Bernstein tells the extraordinary story of global commerce from its prehistoric origins to the myriad controversies surrounding it today. He transports listeners from ancient sailing ships that brought the silk trade from China to Rome in the second century to the rise and fall of the Portuguese monopoly in spices in the 16th; from the rush for sugar that brought the British to Jamaica in 1655 to the American trade battles of the early 20th century; from key innovations such as steam, steel, and refrigeration to the modern era of televisions from Taiwan, lettuce from Mexico, and T-shirts from China.

Along the way, Bernstein examines how our age-old dependency on trade has contributed to our planet's agricultural bounty, stimulated intellectual progress, and made us both prosperous and vulnerable. Although the impulse to trade often takes a backseat to xenophobia and war, Bernstein concludes that trade is ultimately a force for good among nations, and he argues that societies are far more successful and stable when they are involved in vigorous trade with their neighbors.

Lively, authoritative, and astonishing in scope, A Splendid Exchange is a riveting narrative that views trade and globalization not in political terms, but rather as an evolutionary process as old as war and religion - a historical constant - that will continue to foster the growth of intellectual capital, shrink the world, and propel the trajectory of the human species.

©2008 William J. Bernstein (P)2008 Tantor
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Critic Reviews

"The book is not just essential reading; it is fun all the way." (Peter L. Bernstein, author of Against the Gods)
"Bernstein has given us a master's insights into the past to help us understand an issue of deep divisions in the present age." (Sara Bongiorni, author of A Year without 'Made in China')
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5 out of 5 stars
By Mark on 18-07-08

Very interesting and Germane to Today's World

This book provides exactly what it says it does - a history of world trade from ancient to modern times. It's well written and provides a great backdrop to today's arguments over globalization. No doubt it will help you out around the water cooler. I found it very interesting to hear how the same trade issues we're dealing with today have been around for quite a long time. I also thought it was interesting that protectionism is beneficial (overall) in some circumstances (particularly, for the U.S. in the early 1800's) but not others. He explains who wins and who loses from free trade in a very clear and convincing manner. It's nice to see a little of the complexity, beyond the usual political rhetoric, surrounding these loaded issues.

The narration is good, but I recommend the audio version with a couple of caveats. First, unless you're an expert in ancient geography, I recommend that you get the book version also so you can see the maps or else look up a bunch of the names on Wikipedia. Otherwise you'll have no picture of the trade routes he's talking about. Second, it's better if you can take it in larger chunks so you don't lose track of what's going on (he goes on diversions from the main point occasionally that can be hard to track if you're listening in dribs and drabs). Overall, great book.

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15 people found this helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Alex on 20-07-08

Five stars for text, Two stars for narration

The book is very interesting. It adds a new dimension to history, making it very personal and believable. As for the narration, the reader is frequently so mechanical that it sounds like it could be computer speech. Very disappointing.

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8 people found this helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Joshua Kim on 10-06-12


Wonderful, sweeping economic history of the world by one of my favorite writers (Bernstein also wrote "The Birth of Plenty"). These "big" history and "big" thought books are a great antidote to the short time frames and disposable knowledge of our blogging and information overload world. Helps to have a long-term framework to understand our own material lives. Excellent counterpart to Friedman's The World is Flat.

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11 people found this helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Francisco on 16-05-09

Great book, poor narrator

This is an excellent book. I woud compare it to "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson, in the sense that it has a very widespread subject (international trade), but manages to keep it intetesting and on topic.
Unfortunately the narrator is totally detached from the story. He reads the book like a memo. I managed to ignore that and still enjoy the book, but others may prefer the printed version.

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5 people found this helpful

2 out of 5 stars
By Matthew on 10-10-08

Good book, bad narrator.

I'm convinced the narrator is some kind of text-to-speech software. Listen to the sample and make sure it won't drive you up the wall before buying. I found it unlistenable.

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8 people found this helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Apprentice Ilisidi on 14-09-08

Narrator terrible at pronunciation

Mel Foster mispronounces so many words that it is wildly irritating. He pronounced the Duke of "Albuquerque" as if his Dukedom were in New Mexico and made no attempt to pronounce any other Portuguese name as the Portuguese would. Of course, he should have looked these up before recording. He does not pronounce "mercantilism" or "bullion" properly. He pronounces Edinburgh "Edinburg". Perhaps most annoying of all to me personnaly, since he did it in another book too (Vienna 1914, which he rendered unlistenable with his mispronunciations), was that he pronounces the Earl of Castlereagh's name the Earl of "Castleraw". It's the Earl of "Castleray". Shelly wrote after the Peterloo Massacre: "I met Murder on the way - He had a mask like Castlereagh."
Surely there is someone at Tantor who oversees the recording of each audio book and is responsible for making sure that words are pronounced correctly, even if the narrator cannot be bothered to do so?
As for the book itself it was quite interesting, if somewhat disorganized and repetitious at points. If you're not as fussy as I am about narrators' being ignorant about the pronunciation of English words and being too lazy to look foreign words up, you should enjoy the book. That's why I gave it three stars - on the narration alone I would give it none.

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6 people found this helpful

2 out of 5 stars
By Juan sebastian Martinez on 26-07-08

Better to buy the print version

i found it tremendously difficult to envision what the author tried to convey without a visual reference to go along with the narrative. I am sure it is a good book when you can actually see all the geographical references this book constantly makes.

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6 people found this helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Richard on 30-08-10

Great book, would be nice to be better narrated

After 17 hrs of listening, I have to say I learned a lot from this book. The content is really good, begins with ancient trade between Han Chinese and Roman, and ends with 20th century trades with some economic theoretical analysis. Majority of the book is storytelling, so it’s fairly easy for non-economy specialists. It provides ample of evidence on why trade is so important, how much it influenced the world from ancient time to recent, and how protectionism influenced the trade and the world as well.

Although the book has only one focus, which is international trade, it does present studies on both sides for and against trades. I personally do not perceive this book as promoting either propaganda.

I gave this book a 4-star rating. If I can rate on the content, it probably deserves a 5-star, but there are plenty of space for the narrator to improve the overall experience, especially in the first 2/3 of the book. That being said, although the narrator could have done better, the book remains comprehensible as it is currently narrated.

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5 people found this helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Robert on 10-05-15

A little like a college lecture on econ history

What did you like best about A Splendid Exchange? What did you like least?

The section on the ancient Silk Road is interesting. I'm
not sure a book like this lends itself to Audible.

Who was your favorite character and why?

The traders who brought silk, narcotics, spices and other valuables
from the Orient to Europe thru the centuries.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

He drones - little enthusiasm.

Was A Splendid Exchange worth the listening time?

If you are already interested in the area - yes.

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1 person found this helpful

3 out of 5 stars
By Anonymous User on 18-06-12

Narrator sounds like a computer generated voice

Is there anything you would change about this book?

It is a shame that such a well written book is read by such an awful narrator. It sounds like this book is read by a computer generated voice with unexplained pauses and lack of emotion.

Would you be willing to try another one of Mel Foster’s performances?


Could you see A Splendid Exchange being made into a movie or a TV series? Who should the stars be?

Very information book but not movie material.

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1 person found this helpful