By Sylvia Nasar
SIMON & SCHUSTER
In the 18th century, the storied British conservative Edmund Burke observed that "nine parts in ten of the whole race of mankind drudge through life." Nasar, an economist herself, profiles a long list of notables—from novelist Charles Dickens to Nobelist Amartya Sen—who have applied their prodigious intellectual talents to improving the lot of that lower 90 percent. The result is less a cohesive history than an amusing pastiche of her characters' insecurities and caprices, like Karl Marx's bastard child and Friedrich Hayek's lifelong crush on a cousin. Ultimately, she savages socialism and celebrates capitalism. Yet, like A Beautiful Mind, her best-selling bio of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, this is a lively, instructive tome. "Before 1870 economics was mostly about what you couldn't do," Nasar writes. "After 1870, it was mostly about what you could."