This vibrant narrative history of political economics from the 1840s to today recasts the dismal science as a Grand Pursuit (Simon & Schuster, $35). Sylvia Nasar covered economics for The New York Times before turning to biography with A Beautiful Mind, and she combines these two areas of expertise to elucidate ideas and investigate the lives they grew out of. Here’s Alfred Marshall, walking Dickens’s London to get a first-hand look at labor conditions. Here’s Marx, hunkered down in libraries. Nasar covers the Great Depression and two world wars, recreating the experiences of Schumpeter, Keynes, Hayek, Fisher, and others as they faced the terrific challenges of avoiding economic ruin once the gunfire had stopped. The book closes with Amartya Sen, a high-caste Bengali, witnessing the horrors of the 1943 famine, partition, and violence, and using ethics to develop a new economics of social welfare. As much an adventure as a history of ideas, Nasar’s book shows economists in action as the “trustees…of the possibilities of civilization.”
In one of this year’s outstanding works of American history, Tony Horwitz recognizes the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry with Midnight Rising (Holt, $29), an absorbing portrait of that revolutionary firebrand. Brown was born into a strict fundamentalist and abolitionist family (his father was an early trustee of the radical new Ohio college, Oberlin) that was never financially secure. Intensely idealistic but domineering and uncompromising, Brown embraced terrorist tactics and finally engaged in a retaliatory massacre in his fight against slavery, carrying out an unrealistic plan to overpower the pro-slavery American government with a force of nineteen men. At the ensuing trial, the verdict was a foregone conclusion, but Horwitz tells the story with dramatic tension; Brown, described by Julia Ward Howe as a “holy and glorious” martyr, was unrepentant, and you can’t help having mixed feelings—or even reaching for the Kleenex—as Brown climbs to the gallows.
The world into which Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things was reborn in 1417 felt threatened by the ideas expressed there. But The Swerve (W.W. Norton, $26.95) history took in this event, from a God-centered to a material conception of the universe, influenced subsequent thinkers and changed the course of Western culture. In his riveting and suspenseful story of those ideas and their rediscovery, the eminent scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of the popular Will in the World, recounts how Poggio Bracciolini, a canny and ruthless papal apparatchik, but also an intrepid book hunter with exquisite handwriting, found the only surviving copy of this classical masterpiece secreted in a remote German monastery. Greenblatt, himself heir to the humanistic turn effected by the surfacing of On the Nature of Things, has made narrative central to our understanding of literature and culture and unfailingly finds anecdotes that catch the reflected light of an entire cosmos.