She's probably most known as the author of A Beautiful Mind, the biography about Nobel Laureate in Economics John Nash — which would go on to become an Oscar-winning film starring Russell Crowe. But Sylvia Nasar's credits run much longer.
She's a former New York Times correspondent, Fortune writer and U.S. News & World Report columnist. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Newsweek. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in biography, and, at 67, is currently a Columbia Journalism School professor who will speak at Colorado College this week.
The Indy talked with Nasar from her home in New York, focusing largely on her most recent book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius.
Indy: I read a New York Times review in which the writer said you wrote "intimate portraits of [your] subjects, tracing the ways in which personal experiences informed their thinking." I'm curious why you decided to write [on economics] that way.
Nasar: I was inspired by Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, and thought that it was time to revisit that, the connection between the growth of economic ideas and contemporary history. I think that history is made up of biographies. I think that it's a way of understanding ideas that is more intuitively appealing. ...
And also, I thought it was a challenge. People are so afraid of economics. They consider it so difficult and obscure, and removed from everyday life, and I feel sort of the opposite. ... It's very much about the everyday business of life, and understanding the most basic ideas — not the most advanced and leading-edge and sophisticated, but the most basic insights — it's just hugely helpful.
What I've been appreciating is your weaving of a lot of key women into the book, because I think, generally speaking, we don't hear a lot about women and economics.
Well, I mean, I was just looking at the list of speakers who are in this [CC] lecture series, and all the ones that were mentioned — it might not have been all the ones that actually came — were men. And that is true about economics.
So it was interesting to me that Beatrice Webb, for example, was considered the most important economic thinker/economic policy thinker of her generation. And that she's now been completely forgotten. ... She was probably the most famous woman in Britain on the eve of World War II.
When I was in graduate school in the early '70s, Joan Robinson was this giant figure in the field, not just because, or maybe mostly not because, of her contributions to economics, but also because of her politics. ... I included them because they were truly important and they were very interesting.
Aside from yours, what books on economics would you recommend to non-economists?
I would recommend some of Paul Krugman's books. ... He's got a very particular point of view and he's somewhat pessimistic, but I think he's very, very brilliant at ... boiling complicated subjects down into clear insights, and also doing the same on the data side, picking out the one or two key facts that are telling, without getting you lost in the weeds. And in particular, now that I think about it, I would recommend his [Economics] textbook, which is an odd thing to say because textbooks are not too much fun to read, but his book, which he does with his wife, and is now in, I don't know, its [fourth] edition, is really fun to read. ...
There's a great, great book by Bruce Greenwald ... on globalization. It's a very tiny book but I think it's brilliant. It pierces a lot of myths that we casually embrace. And it's also very witty. ... Of course, Steve Levitt's Freakonomics.
What's funny is that economics is this — there are a lot of best-sellers, and a lot of really popular books on economics written by really good economists. It's a genre like popular science.
I'm sure there are folks who, post-A Beautiful Mind, would love to see you delve into another individual the way you did with John Nash. Do you have any plans to do that?
No. I'm not planning to write another biography, but I am writing about another handful of individuals in a book that will have a fairly major biographical component. The John Nash story was — it's extraordinary to find an iconic story that nobody else has ever written about. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. ... Especially amazing in this case because it was such an expansive story that took in all this history and this whole generation, as well as a remarkable individual and remarkable ideas. ...
I think what I'm interested in is not biography per se, but whatever that nexus is of history and biography and ideas. That's what really attracts me, rather than birth to death.