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Sylvia Nasar

The Story of Economic Genius

A-Grand PursuitSylvia Nasar is the Knight Chair of Business Journalism at Columbia University. Her biography of the mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (1998), was made into the film of the same name.

The Topic: A wit once said that most of the predictions made by economists are either obvious or wrong. But that doesn't mean they don't make for a good story. Sylvia Nasar, who successfully integrated complex ideas and personal drama in her biography A Beautiful Mind, expands to an ensemble cast in Grand Pursuit--in this case, the leading lights of economics from the 19th century to the present, who grappled with the complex questions about government intervention, free markets, and democracy that still face us today. With Nasar as guide, readers are introduced to the political and personal context that formed the thought of heavy economic hitters such as John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Nasar also discusses theorists who have fallen into relative obscurity, such as Alfred Marshall, Irving Fisher, and Beatrice and Sydney Webb, to offer a "who's who" of economic history.
Simon & Schuster. 576 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780684872988

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like Robert L. Heilbroner's 1953 classic The Worldly Philosophers, Grand Pursuit traces the evolution of economics through personalities, or ‘protagonists who were instrumental in turning economics into an instrument of mastery.' ... As she's shown before, Nasar is good at finding a compelling story amid academic drudgery. " Justin Moyer

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book can seem at times like just a grab bag of different economists, countries and ideas. ... Much of Grand Pursuit may be a reminder that as bad as things seem now, they have been worse--much worse--and that those difficult times can shed light on what is happening today." Alana Semuels

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Nasar ... is a superb writer, fully meeting the standard set by Robert Heilbroner, in his The Worldly Philosophers (1953), for graceful writing on a difficult subject. ... The book is a kind of portrait gallery of economic thinkers, each artfully set down in his or her time and place." James Grant

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Nasar's aim ... is not to write intellectual history but to put the reader into the lives of the characters of a sweeping historical drama that extends from Victorian England to modern-day India. That she largely succeeds reflects the depth and breadth of her research but also the elegance of her prose." Steve Pearlstein

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite much fascinating detail and patches of vivid writing, Nasar's book won't replace Heilbroner's [The Worldly Philosophers] as the go-to introduction to economic history. ... Such [factual] errors might be forgiven if the rest of the book were stronger or had more to say that hasn't been said before. Alas, it isn't and doesn't." Drew DeSilver

Critical Summary

When Sylvia Nasar sat down to write Grand Pursuit, she may not have meant to pen a 21st-century update to Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, a well-worn introduction to the major minds of the field. But critics inevitably compared Nasar's new book to the 1953 work--usually favorably. Like Heilbroner, Nasar does a good job of integrating biography and intellectual history. But most critics were also reluctant to fully embrace the book for various reasons. Some felt that it simply attempts to cover too much ground. Others felt that Nasar's pursuit of a big idea--namely, that economics has improved the human lot--distracted her from the book's more interesting narrative arc. Finally, some, like the Wall Street Journal, simply disagreed with Nasar's grand conclusions about "the dismal science." But despite the criticism, most reviewers still recommended the book.