Sylvia Nasar, Simon & Schuster, 559 pages, $35

Beginning her book in the era of Charles Dickens, Sylvia Nasar takes us through the times that influenced economic thinkers and the theories they put forth.

We see Marx walking through the streets of London with his generous, patient sponsor Engels, "their extreme myopia and the sulfurous yellow London fog obscur[ing] everything more than a foot ahead." We see Joseph Schumpeter, who theorized that entrepreneurs were the key to economic progress and who had a habit of challenging university librarians to duels and arriving at lectures in jodhpurs.

Alfred Marshall, a founder of modern economics, wore a handlebar mustache and took up knitting during an illness, and discovered, Nasar writes, that businesses didn't just exist to produce a profit for their owners. He realized they were also meant to "produce higher living standards for consumers and workers."

It is the quirks and personalities of these economic thinkers that bring "Grand Pursuit" to life. Nasar argues that the details of their personal successes and failures -- along with the weighty history revolving around them -- inspired their individual conclusions about how the system works.

But the book can seem at times like just a grab bag of different economists, countries and ideas. In "A Beautiful Mind," Nasar's 1998 biography of John Nash Jr. that was made into a movie and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the author focused in depth on one man's theories and personal life. In " Grand Pursuit," Nasar tries to tackle dozens of men and women, and at times the book gets confusing as different characters wander in and out of chapters.

Still, through Nasar's ambitious storytelling, we see Western society evolve from one in which most people live in poverty to one in which government tries to grapple with unemployment and inflation and raise the standard of living for all. If Nasar puts perhaps too much emphasis on the influence of early economic thinkers -- who, after all, were observing conditions rather than creating them -- she does show how fully the profession has become entwined with the way governments run.