Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit Is a Grand Gift 

“Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit is a marvelous intellectual and social history of economics, economists, and economic times during the century when economics came into its own, 1850 through 1950.

The book is a real page-turner. Nasar weaves people, places, politics, banking, social injustice, war, depression, recession, personal relations, personalities, sex, anti-Semitism, self-doubt, physical impairment, espionage, poverty, personal finance, self-delusion, self-interest, and much more in a book that educates as thoroughly and gracefully as it entertains.

Other economists, including Robert Solow, have reviewed this book and picked nits about the breath of its economic analysis. But for my money, Nasar does a truly splendid job conveying the essentials. Yes, much more could have been said about the contributions of each of the scholars covered in the Grand Pursuit. But spending pages trying to parse Marx or Keynes, when much of what they wrote is indecipherable, would detract from conveying their main and meaningful messages.

Nasar should, in fact, be deemed the Bard of Economics. She has the rare gift of making a subject as dry as it gets as exciting and clear as can be.

Some reviewers have also griped about the subtitle’s reference to economic genius, worrying that some of Nasar’s cast of economic glitterati were not true geniuses and that some geniuses missed her boat.

I think this misses the point. The book is primarily about a quest, not about specific accomplishments. The quest is by men and women trying to understand whether economies will grow and, if so, why and to whose benefit. Many of the “geniuses” we meet along the way are self-appointed and self-satisfied. So the book’s subtitle may be read as partly tongue in cheek. Moreover, the geniuses who make Nasar’s cut are illustrative of the entire cohort of economists and political philosophers who strove to make sense of their own and other economies in the often-terrible times through which they passed.

While the book doesn’t belabor this point, its underlying message is that the grand pursuit for economic understanding and material justice is a messy work pursued by people that are all too human. We find economists sticking to empty guns, overstating their cases, playing modern-day oracles, drinking their own Kool Aid, gambling their fortunes, losing their shirts, getting depressed, disparaging one another, and descending into intellectual oblivion.

But against this backdrop of human foible and often painful senescence, we also learn of economists changing their minds, respecting others’ opinions, reaching consensus, jointly advancing the discipline, forming close friendships, spending time with one another, and passing the torch to the next generation.

Thus Keynes and Hayek are shown by Nasar, at the end of their careers, standing shoulder to shoulder on many central questions of economic policy — not arguing inflexibly as in today’s popular Youtube videos. We learn of Keynes and Irving Fisher seeing eye-to-eye in the Great Depression. We learn of Milton Friedman’s early days as a Keynesian, of Schumpeter encouraging his star student Paul Samuelson, of Amatyra Sen’s awe over and repugnance with his imperious mentor, Joan Robinson, and of Alfred Marshall vanquishing Thomas Malthus, Schumpeter transforming Marshall, and Solow mathematizing and quantifying both.

What emerges is a picture of a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-generational team effort in which consensus is difficult, but does emerge, albeit with new views, new members, and new disputes occurring over time. It’s a pursuit of economic truth, for its own sake, but primarily for the sake of mankind. This makes the pursuit very grand, indeed, and makes Grand Pursuit a deep inspiration for any economist, young or old, to read.

The book’s one terrible flaw is that it comes to an end when the reader has become so very addicted to its pages. Sylvia Nasar’s second fabulous contribution to economics, which reflects such careful, detailed, and prolonged scholarship, should not, cannot, must not be her last. The Grand Pursuit continues. Economics’ postwar story, as compelling and intriguing as its prewar story, needs, nay, demands telling, and Sylvia Nasar is the one to tell it.”

Laurence Kotlikoff, Forbes


“Like Lords of Finance, Grand Pursuit is narrative history at its finest. Told with unpretentious verve and vivid detail….Absorbing.”

James Pressley, Full Review »


Grand Pursuit is a worthy successor to Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers…. Nasar’s aim is to put the reader into the lives of the characters of a sweeping historical drama that extends from Victorian England to modern-day India….Reflects the depth and breadth of her research but also the elegance of her prose.”

Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post Full Review »


“[Robert] Heilbroner was out to provide an easy-to-digest survey of economic thought through the ages. Nasar has set herself a task at once narrower and more ambitious. She has a story to tell, a story of tragedy, triumph, and as the subtitle says, economic genius…. [The] book as a whole is made up of so many wonderful parts…. [A] rich, in places dazzling, history”

Justin Fox, The New York Times Book Review Full Review »


“Nasar brilliantly brings to life game-changing economists from Marx to Hayek and from Sidney Webb to Milton Friedman, tracing the evolution of modern economic thinking through the richly detailed stories of the men and woman who reshaped how we think of life’s possibilities…. This is an utterly fascination book on many levels…. A Beautiful Mind, Nasar’s previous book, was about an economist named John Nash, but Nasar’s mind is pretty good, too. No lesser mind could have written a book so rich, so compelling, so important, and so much fun.”

Mickey Edwards, The Boston Globe


“Capacious and absorbing.”

John Cassidy, The New Yorker


“A fascinating excursion into the economic ideas and personalities that have deposited most of us at a standard of living unparalleled in human history…. Engrossing…. Nasar, who wrote A Beautiful Mind,…. is drawn to intellectual giants. They stomp across the idiosyncratic and readable pages of Grand Pursuit, which unfurls with a David McCullough-like knack for telling popular history…. On these pages, the dismal science shines.”

Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer Full Review »


“Nasar is a superb writer…. The book is a kind of portrait gallery of economic thinkers,each artfully set down in his or her time and place…. You can’t help becoming engrossed in their lives.”

James Grant, The Wall Street Journal Full Review »


“a compelling history of modern economics, a story of the theorists as well as of their theories….Grand Pursuit is artfully rendered and a delight to read….One suspects that future economics textbooks will warrant some revisions. All the same, their authors would profit from consulting Grand Pursuit.”

Roger Lowenstein, Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s **FIVE STAR** Review Full Review »


“One of the many wonderful things about Nasar’s book is that in it, economic genius isn’t limited to the usual suspects….Even when exploring famous economic minds, Nasar brings out the humanity in the dismal science by showing their ideas are nearly always rooted in formative experiences.”

TIME Magazine Full Review »

“A history of economics which is full of flesh, bloom and warmth….Deserves a place not only in every economist’s study but also on every serious reader’s bedside table.”

The Economist Full Review »


“A timely reminder of the importance of the so-called dismal science…. Written almost as a novel and aimed at those without a background in economics, the book charts capitalism’s evolution through the eyes of the people who invented it…. It is compellingly written, full of detail and vivid anecdotes, and with a refreshing focus on people rather than prices.”

Gregor Hunter, The Nation


“[This] is the story of the evolution of a radical, planet-reshaping idea…The canvas is epic…The details are fresh, at times startling…At the same time, gnarly but critical concepts…shine through in all their richness and complexity. If only Econ 101 had been this interesting!”

Rik Kirkland, “Weekly Read” column Full Review »


Grand Pursuit makes for lively reading…. A colorful, even exciting series of historical vignettes involving important protagonists in the history of economic thought.”

Rober M. Solow, winner of the Nobel Prize, The New Republic Full Review »


“It is the quirks and personalities of these economic thinkers that bring Grand Pursuit to life. Nasar argues that the details of their personal successes and failures–along with the weighty history revolving around them–inspired their individual conclusions about how the system works…. Through Nasar’s ambitious storytelling, we see Western society evolve from one in which most people live in poverty to one in which government tries to grapple with unemployment and inflation and raise the standard of living for all.”

Alana Samuels, Los Angeles Times Book Review


“We’re…Anticipating Grand Pursuit Because the author of A Beautiful Mind, who knows how to humanize big ideas, makes a sweeping case for post-Malthusian economics as the single most important driver of the progress of mankind”

New York Magazine


“…if there’s a way to be entertained as well as edified by what critic Thomas Carlyle called the dismal science, this riveting history it is.”

More Magazine Full Review »


“Nasar’s vivid writing makes economics interesting to a general audience by telling the stories of the men and women behind the theories and equations.”

Jingwen Hu, The Philadelphia Inquirer


“Nasar offers a fresh way to look at the growth of economic theor over the last few centuries via certain extraordinary people…. A sweeping perspective of the subject to readers who ordinarily might not pick up a tome devoted to economics.”

Fredericksburg Freelance Star Full Review »


“A lively, instructive tome.”

Mother Jones


Grand Pursuit traces the evolution of economics through personalities…. A compelling story amid academic drudgery”

Justin Moyer, The Christian Science Monitor


“Nasar does a good job of laying out the historical circumstances under which economic theory evolved between the early 19th century and the post-Second World War period….Grand Pursuit… is a rattling good read and brings to life a subject that desperately needs to be much better understood.”

Peter Foster, National Post (Canada)


“Nasar’s last book, A Beautiful Mind, demonstrated her deftness in portraying one great thinker (troubled math genius John Nash). This new title applies the same strengths to a broader subject–the history of contemporary economic thought–by focusing on the men and women who shaped it, from Victorian England through the end of the 20th century. The result must rank among the most readable efforts at a history of the field.”

Canadian Business Full Review »


“Intellectual history, expertly related through biography. This is rich, compulsively readable stuff…. It is hard to overstate the merits of Nasar’s book. Not since Barbara Tuchman has there been a more imaginative and readable interpreter of historical trends.” Full Review »


“Nasar has the skill to make this an engrossing story even for those of us who can barely count. Expect a wide audience.”

Library Journal

“Gripping….This broad-sweep introduction adds an important historical dimension to current debates on the future of the American economy.”

Kirkus Full Review »

“…Nasar creatively deploys lives-and-times to show the evolution of economics from an explanation of fate into an application of policy.”

Booklist Full Review »


“Nasar surveys the leading economic thinkers and their work….She paints complex and colorful portraits.”

The Washington Independent Review of Books Full Review »


“[An] exceptionally original book….Combining a novelist’s eye for vivid images with a historian’s sense of the contexts in which ideas are produced and disseminated, Nasar presents, in Grand Pursuit, a drama of the shifting patterns of economic thought over the past two centuries which abounds in arresting vignettes.”

New Statesman Full Review »


“Like the popular histories of David McCullough and other acclaimed authors, Nasar’s Grand Pursuit is chock-full of fascination men and women and their stories, with one drama-filled account tumbling on top of another…. Grand Pursuit is a very entertaining tale bursting with great stories…. Don’t think for a moment you need to have a dog in the fight between Keynesians and the Chicago School to enjoy this book.” Full Review »


“[R]eading Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit lets me enjoy some very human life stories while upping my economic savvy. The narrative scaffolding is ambitious; the economic history of the industrial world into which Nasar weaves mini-biographies of influential economists… [An] entertaining and though-provoking read”

The Florida Times-Union Full Review »


“[An] ambitious, sprawling survey of modern economics.”

The New Yorker (“Briefly Noted” review)


“Nasar’s Grand Pursuit is a worthy successor to Heilbroner’s story…. it is richer and teachers more about economics. Nasar… gives a grand but not overly generalized story of the ideas of a set of thinkers who transformed economics in the 20th century. Highly recommended.”

Publisher’s Choice


“General-interest collections as well as college-level holdings strong in economic history and discussion will find this a winner.”

California Bookwatch


“[Nasar] devoted 10 years to bringing cohesion to the story of modern economics.”


“Fascinating….[This] is great reading for anyone wanting a diversion into economics as biography.”


“What Ms. Nasar does brilliantly here… is give us intimate portraits of her subjects, tracing the ways in which personal experiences informed their thinking. Ms. Nasar … writes with ease and authority about complicated economic matters, but shows even more fluency evoking the inner lives of her subjects and the social worlds they transited.”

The New York Times


“In Grand Pursuit, Sylvia Nasar broke the mould not only in mining the dismal science for enthralling human stories, but braiding them into a sequence of stylish bio-essays.”

Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (UK) Full Review »


“An absorbing journey through big ideas and pioneering lives”

Independent Print Ltd


“If you loved [Lords of Finance], you’ll love Grand Pursuit… [Nasar] turns a long-ago adventure into a compelling story for the present day…. In her telling the lives and times of economists make awfully interesting reading.”, Best Business Books of 2011


“I thoroughly enjoyed the book…. [Nasar] does an excellent job of providing insights into each thinker and what drove them…. I recommend the book to those who are interested both in the history of economic thought and the characters who played the leading roles.”


“Sylvia Nasar’s ‘Grand Pursuit’ is an epic narrative excursion into the history of economic ideas and their proponents, from Marx to Milton Friedman. Timely and entertaining, this book deserves as wide a readership as possible.”

The Wall Street Journal, “Twelve Months of Reading” feature


“[Nasar] tells some wonderful stories about [her subjects’] extraordinary lives.”

Financial Times, “Reader I Loved Them”, FT writers’ nonfiction favorites from 2011


“A vivid narrative.”, “Top Business Books”