Classics for Economists

Courtesy of Elizabeth Baldwin at Oxford, I was reminded of a list of classic novels economists should read, something I posted here a few years ago. I had forgotten about it, and must immodestly say it’s a great list. Here it is again, below.

However, it could be better. Even in my own cultural tradition, I haven’t read the great Russian authors on the whole. Which of those are particularly economics-relevant? I hate Henry James and Dickens (school aversion therapy) but accept novels like Little Dorrit could count. What about African, Indian, Chinese classics? Should modern classics be added, Vonnegut’s Player Piano, say? Suggestions please.

The 2013 list:

Nostromo, Joseph Conrad: the heart of colonialism

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Germinal, Emile Zola: the fuel of the Industrial Revolution – coal and human life

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North and South or Mary Barton, Mrs Gaskell: the social effects of industrialisation with a special eye on women. Mary Barton is set in my home city, Manchester.

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The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov: the murderous insanity of Soviet dictatorship – Professor Woland, Game Theorist? I’ve only just read this, having seen the truly, madly, deeply brilliant Theatre de Complicite staging earlier this year.

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The Charterhouse of Palma, Stendhal: pre-unification Italy and European politics

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The Leopard, Giuseppe de Lampedusa: The Risorgimento, and modernity.

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The Whirlpool, George Gissing: in fact anything by Gissing – as he summed it up, “Not enough money,” in Britain’s newly industrialising cities

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Middlemarch, George Eliot (or again, pretty much anything by her): astute political and psychological analysis of 19th century social change. Bonnets and frocks without the saccharine.

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Roxana, Daniel Defoe: the economic status of women, by one of the unsung feminist heroes, who was also a famous economic journalist in his day.

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We, Yevgeny Zamyatin: collectivism, conformity – the dark side of the early 20th century. Another recent discovery, courtesy of Nick Reynolds.

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Les Miserables, Victor Hugo: need I say anything? I even loved the recent musical movie version

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My Antonia and O Pioneers, Willa Cather: the harsh life of the American frontier, and the strength of women.

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The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald: the Roaring 20s in a glamorous nutshell. I haven’t yet seen the new Baz Luhrmann movie version.

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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressel: not the greatest literature but a novel that still speaks to working people struggling for money.

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Castle Rackrent, Maria Edgeworth: She was contemporary with Jane Austen, but lived a lot longer.

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12 thoughts on “Classics for Economists

  1. Moby Dick has a lot of economics, salary negotiations, yield optimisation by focusing effort in most profitable areas etc. And power relations, captains and sailors.

  2. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Dickens, Hard Times. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle.

  3. Piketty made me read Balzac’s Pere Goriot, which had interesting points but was hard going. My Kindle tells me I acquired the Tenant of Wildfell Hall around the same time, which was probably prompted by the same thinking process, but I never got round to reading that. “The first feminist novel” I’m told though – I probably should get to it.

    I have always found there to be a terrible shortage of novels (and cultural works in general) dealing with money, business or work. More broadly though, as you point out, a crucial theme many novels address is the tradeoffs we have to make in life. Whether most novelists have learned the theory of marginal substitution is a tougher question…is there a list of economists that all novelists should read?

  4. Hans Fallada’s “Little Man What Now” (Kleiner Mann, Was Nun?”). Also not a classic but Arthur Solmssen’s “A Princess in Berlin” has a great scene where a customer comes in to a bank to pay off a huge loan with worthless paper money.

  5. Red Plenty by Frances Spufford. Wonderful on measuring growth and organising markets in a command economy.

  6. Although a perennial inclusion on greatest books lists, still there are at least a couple of Dickens books that economists might find salient – of course Bleak House is a magnificent story of how the law can be used to destroy social relations (and as such is a key illustration of quite a lot of critical law & economics analysis) and Little Dorrit contains a wonderfully angry denunciation of the financial sector – reflecting Dickens’ own problems.

  7. Pingback: More classics (and other novels) for economists | The Enlightened Economist

  8. Pingback: More classics (and other novels) for economists – The Economics and Finance Remix

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