Looking for talk of George Eliot and Charles Dickens and Muriel Rukeyser?
Look no further than Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit.
Well, I had to get your attention somehow, right?
Because I know that by the time most of you get to the subtitle of this one, your eyes are already glancing away to the next novel on your stack.
I get it. I really do. (That’s me, too.)
But so does Sylvia Nasar. (Or, kind of, anyway.)
And I’m telling the truth: Eliot and Dickens and Rukeyser all figure in this work. And H.G. Wells. And Phyllis Rose. And Edward Bellamy. And…
In fact, one of Sylvia Nasar’s favourite anecdotes about the research she did surrounds her discovery of the real reason that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.
I always thought that he wrote it for money. And he did, in a way.
According to Nasar’s research, he wrote it to refute Malthusian theory that charity increased the suffering it was intended to ease.
The theory culminated in the new Poor Law that required workhouse residency to gain relief; this beloved story began as an economic argument.
But despite the fact that Sylvia Nasar is talking books here, it’s also true that she has a thing for economics.
She’s best known for A Beautiful Mind, which told the story of John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994, despite his battle with schizophrenia.
In fact, she says that it’s “impossible to understand the material basis of our civilization without economics”.*
From writing the book about John Nash she “learned that some stories that are really universal and that bridge all kinds of cultures”.**
The economic story is one of those stories. (If you follow BIP, you’ll recall that this idea is also at the heart of Monoculture but it’s told from another slant: if you missed that post, please check it out.)
So she starts out interested in her subject (me, not so much), but her second favourite anecdote points to another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed, and that’s the part about Beatrice Webb.
Here’s this “beautiful and wealthy heiress [who] goes undercover to work in a sweat shop and invents the welfare state and the think tank”. *
(How is it that I’ve never heard of Beatrice Webb? A woman? An economic genius? In my school studies, I could swear that those two phrases never once intersected.)
Now you’ve got the Dickens thing, and the Beatrice Webb thing (if she’s new to you, too, that’s probably an ever brighter star), but this book is more than 500 pages, and some of it really is about economic history.
She begins with 1848 (with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s The Communist Manifesto and John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and moves into 1890 with Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics and that’s where Beatrice Webb comes in (and that is a good chunk of the text). And…
Wait: you don’t need me to recount this stuff. You can read the table of contents.
I love 321 Fast Draws. I probably would have watched this one, even if I hadn’t read the book, which just goes to show you how much I love them.
And, really, that’s what I do need to say about this book. It’s really not about the subject, but about the presentation.
Sylvia Nasar presents her material in Grand Pursuit in such a way that it is of interest to me, even though on any other given day, I would be far more likely to pick up A Christmas Carol than any book with the word ‘economics’ on the cover.
For example, here are two examples of her prose; I think you’ll agree that it’s more engaging than you might have guessed from the cover and the subtitle.
“The smells – pungent tobacco, overpowering rum, sickening hides and horn, fragrant coffee and spices – evoked a vast global trade, an endless stream of migrants, and a far-flung empire.”
“Like Webb, Robinson had to reinvent herself. Despite her impressive pedigree, cavernous family mansion, and posh private schooling, she was / being groomed to support a husband’s career rather than to pursue one of her own. But at fourteen, she was already dreamy, bookish, and introverted. The world of her imagination seemed more vivid than the world around her. She wrote constantly: essays, stories, poetry. She wanted an audience badly enough to declaim her poems at Poet’s Corner in Hyde Park.”
If you’re like me, this isn’t the kind of prose you’d expect from the cover and subtitle of this work.
And maybe you are like me, too, in the sense that you have a gnawing sense of wanting to be acquainted with Sylvia Nasar’s subject right now because — even while you’re flipping past the front sections to the book reviews in your favourite news sources — you are aware of the economic events playng out in the headlines that you’re glancing past.
We see it today: a resurgence of demand for social and economic reform. Sylvia Nasar’s text reminds us that it’s happened throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Recessions and depressions, financial crises, skepticism about the degree to which economic growth was actually benefitting the majority of the citizens: these are not new phenomena. It’s all a part of this bigger story.
So maybe if you’re actually looking for a lot of talk about Eliot and Dickens and Rukeyser you would choose some other books.
But if your primary interest actually lies in the arts, and you still want to better understand the story of economics, I can’t imagine a more accessible volume than Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit.
* In interview with Joseph Craig, in September 2011
** In Interview at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, in May 2011