My Five Favorite Novels with Economics Themes
A ridiculously biased list, in no particular order.
There is no faster way to shut down the brain of literature geeks than to ask for their “favorite book.” It’s only slightly less dangerous to ask for a short list of favorites. Acknowledging that fact, and knowing that the mere making of a list means that at the moment of publication I will remember the many many works I didn’t include, here is a ridiculously biased list, in no particular order, of my five favorite novels with economic themes.
Red Plenty,* Francis Spufford.
This is the economic novel I probably recommend most often to economists. Francis Spufford uses an astounding combination of economics, history, and fiction to look at the Soviet system from 1938-1968. It’s a gripping read, and a beautifully written one. Not only does the book effectively detail the failures and eventual horrors of Soviet planning, it also conveys the belief that many Soviets had in its promise as a solution to the problem of poverty. That Spufford can do both those things and still produce a novel that is a pleasure to read, rather than a faintly disguised teaching text, makes it a great companion to Ludwig von Mises’s 1920 article on socialist calculation and other academic texts.
High Wages, Dorothy Whipple.
This, on the other hand, is the economic novel I recommend most often to literature scholars. British fiction written by and for women between the world wars is often interested in economic questions. I suspect this is a result of the economic challenges raised by wartime rationing and scarcity combined with the economic opportunities that opened up for women as men went to war and women stepped in to fill their jobs. This means that Persephone Books, which concentrates on precisely this kind of fiction, is often a great resource for fans of economic fiction. My ever-growing shelf of Persephone publications includes Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages. HIgh Wages follows the occupational and romantic adventures of Jane, who begins her story as an impoverished store clerk, living above a dress shop and struggling to rise above poverty. Through hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit, a healthy dose of talent, and some help from a woman with money to invest, Jane becomes the owner of her own shop and creator of her own designs. Published in 1930, the novel is an inspiration to any working woman and any entrepreneur, and it’s a great reminder that–well before 1968–women were working hard.
Bleak House (with an Introduction by Edwin Percy Whipple), Charles Dickens.
Economists don’t tend to be fans of Charles Dickens. The creation of Ebenezer Scrooge, and the attack on Manchester in Hard Times go a long way to explain why. However, I’ve long argued that in other works, Dickens is much friendlier to markets and to other institutions that free market fans care about. Bleak House is my favorite support for that argument. It also happens to be a great read. Alongside the novel’s central plot, which focuses on the unending struggles to resolve the Jarndyce and Jarndyce inheritance case, Dickens explores the personal and social dangers of financial irresponsibility, the deleterious effects of aristocratic pretensions in young men who should be learning a profession, and the grim effects of ill-planned charity.For those who only know A Christmas Carol and Hard Times, this is a very different Dickens, and one who is well worth reconsidering.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver
Fans of Ayn Rand will appreciate both the sweeping scope of The Mandibles and the novel’s intense focus on economic themes. Set in an imaginary American future where a new global currency has driven the dollar out of primacy, where inflation skyrockets, and where the government defaults on its debt and seizes civilian gold, The Mandibles is something of a novel of economic horror–and one that sounds all too possible. In turns funny, touching, depressing, and inspiring, Lionel Shriver’s novel is the most recent novel I’ve read that I suggest to economists looking for a good book recommendation. For the Econlog audience, it doesn’t hurt that there’s a strong libertarian slant to the novel, which ends [possible spoiler!!] in a separatist enclave in Nevada.
A Town Like Alice (Vintage International), Nevil Shute
People think that A Town Like Alice is a romance novel, and it does have a romantic scene or two. The novel’s real focus, though, is on the war-time experiences of Jean Paget, a young British woman working in Malaya when WWII breaks out. The months that Jean spends with a group of women and children, being force-marched from village to village, are based on true stories from the war. As Jean struggles to keep herself and her companions alive, she learns to trade and to barter to get food and medical supplies. Those skills come in handy after the war, when Jean relocated to Australia in order to find a young Australian soldier who aided her at some of her worst moments. While she tries to locate him, she is inspired to improve the primitive outback town where she is staying. She does so by opening a business in order to persuade young people to stay in town. As they begin to stay, she opens other businesses–a swimming pool and an ice cream parlor–to make the town more attractive. Jean is a stunning example of the way that businesses can change a town and the people in it, and the importance of entrepreneurial alertness and drive. A Town Like Alice is a war novel, a business novel, and an Australian novel all at once. It can’t fail to entertain.