The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, Robert L. Heilbroner (Simon & Schuster: $19.95, hardcover reprint). Cautious optimism and a sense of frustration intermingle in these pages. The frustration traces back to the author's seminal 1976 work, "Inquiry Into the Human Prospect," which mirrored America's sagging morale after military might seemed to collapse with Vietnam, moral leadership with Watergate and economic control with the failure of Keynesian economics to keep inflation and unemployment under wraps. "Rationality has its limits with regard to the engineering of social change," Heilbroner reluctantly acknowledged, grimly concluding that we can expect more of the "disorder and cruelty of the past."
Heilbroner's darkest predictions are, however, about politics and the environment--he's particularly worried that thermal pollution will become so severe in the next 40 years that "people will start dropping like flies." In contrast, he's largely sanguine about the economy, even overly so, predicting, for example, that by 1981 the United States would establish a national economic planning institute. The middle of this book, written in 1953, reflects this optimistic spirit, paying tribute to famed economists with whom Heilbroner largely agrees (such as John Maynard Keynes) and disagrees (such as Adam Smith). But a tone of uncertainty emerges in the new preface and updated conclusion, which defend the philosophy of economic interventionism against free-market theorists advocating a hands-off approach. Heilbroner admits that economics is largely useless as a prediction tool, even though the majority of Nobel Prizes are still given for prediction techniques. Nevertheless, as Heilbroner sees it, economics can be a powerful tool for putting society's ideals into practice. Heilbroner doesn't offer an extended argument on the need for economic activism, but his "worldly philosophers" do, for the necessity of political intervention is about the only issue on which a majority of them agree.
The Beast of the Haitian Hills, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin and Pierre Marcelin (City Lights: $6.95). While this 1946 novel is about the ignorance of the poor and the indifference of the rich in Haiti, it is enlivened by an unusual narrative and an enchanted backdrop. Following his wife's death, Morin, a wealthy grocer, moves from the city to the Haitian countryside in search of a "season of tumultuous children in the swimming holes of the mountain torrents." But Morin finds the peasants "uncouth" and proceeds to offend one who is "in league with evil spirits." The influential peasant responds by telling Morin that a dreaded evil spirit has been sent his way, and, while Morin initially casts scorn at the notion, it soon obsesses him. This is a novel about being chased by our own demons, but it also is a study of a culture. Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, who participated in Voudon ceremonies for three years before co-writing this novel, criticizes both Morin's culture--rich in wealth but lacking human sympathy--and the peasants', who, he believes, allow themselves to be exploited by magicians with business savvy. "Don't you have enough money," asks one magician, "to offer a little religious service to your guardian spirits?"
84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff (Avon: $4.95). This classic collection of letters, evoking the joy of reading and revealing the potential for intimate human interaction despite a formidable geographic barrier--the Atlantic Ocean--seems an unlikely candidate for a movie deal. But in March, Los Angeles film goers will be able to see the bright, extroverted Hanff played by Anne Bancroft and her principal epistolary friend, a secondhand bookstore employee named Frank Doel, by Anthony Hopkins. Bancroft might be able to evoke Hanff's bibliophilic pleasures--"I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read most often"--and sins, such as writing long margin notes in library books. But it's impossible to translate the understated technique that has made this book especially successful since its first appearance in 1970. Hanff's letters appear on the left pages, replies from Doel and fellow employees at the bookstore on the right. As Hanff reads through the stuffy British reserve in Doel's letters, so do we, sharing both her enthusiasm for language and her ability to perceive human characters behind impersonal initials.