British historian Niall Ferguson is a professor at Harvard and the best-selling author of The House of Rothschild and The Pity of War. His latest work, The Ascent of Money, has just been published.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Penguin, $16). The best historical novel ever, War and Peace seamlessly moves from great events to private lives, always illuminating the human condition. I first read it as a schoolboy and remember thinking, This man is asking the question I want to address in my life: What is the power that moves nations?

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (Dalkey Archive, $14). The funniest book ever written in English (and a bit of Irish). This sustained exercise in literary parody never falters. My uncle gave it to me for Christmas when I was a teen, but I didn’t get it until my first summer as an Oxford undergraduate, when I cycled around Ireland, subsisting largely on Guinness.

The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus (out of print). The play that changed my life: One man’s astonishingly prescient vision of the First World War as a media circus. I’ve seen it staged once—by the Citizens’ Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival—but it works perfectly well on the printed page. After this, I knew I had to learn German and study 20th-century Central Europe.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (Everyman’s Library, $60). The ­greatest work of historical writing, and a master class in irony. It will take Gibbon to do justice to the decline and fall of the American Empire, when it finally comes. Perhaps this future Gibbon will take a similar view of Christianity’s role in the imperial denouement.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (Canongate, $11). Everything you want to know about the split personality of Calvinism. It gave me a distinctly uncomfortable insight into my own predicament. A sense of belonging to the predestined godly elect doesn’t necessarily make you a nice person.

Gold and Iron by Fritz Stern (Knopf, $25). We all need role models, and when I started to work on financial history, this book, about “Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire,” was mine. Seldom, if ever, has the financial back story of great historical events been so brilliantly illuminated.