Review: Local author pens new book


Originally published in The Orcasonian, May 16, 2023

Text reproduced here by permission

It is a pleasure to review a book by a fellow islander, Michael Hurwicz’s Leonid Hurwicz: Intelligent Designer: How War and the Great Depression Inspired a Nobel Economist (Cherry Orchard Books: Boston, 2023), published on May 9.

At the beginning of his “Epilogue,” Hurwicz says:

The genesis of this book dates to 2007, with people asking me why my dad won the Nobel Prize. Assuming I would know! But—strangely—it turned out that my careers as hippie-bum, folksinger, tech writer, occasional fiction attempter, eco-arts-educator, etc. etc. etc., really hadn’t prepared me all that well for providing capsule explanations of Nobel-level mathematical economics. (139)

Hurwicz then proceeds to explain how he used various approaches to answering that question and how he finally “came to feel that this story could probably best be told in a somewhat extended, continuous narrative—a book” (140).

So this is the book we have before us: it consists of 140 pages of that narrative (about which more in a moment) and 74 pages of appendices A – G. These cover topics like “Leo’s Memorial,” “A Celebration of Leo’s 90th Birthday”, “A Timeline of the Life of Leo Hurwicz,” Hurwicz’s interview with his father, and some economic topics, like “What Is Mechanism Design?“

All of these are fascinating, but I was maybe most grateful for the last which helped this math and economics challenged reader tremendously.

But the heart and the soul of this book is the extended narrative that precedes these appendices. In it, Hurwicz tells the story of a remarkable man. A man, who received a Nobel Prize in Economics at age 90, who was married to the same woman, Evelyn, from age 27 until his death, who was the father of four children, who was an excellent pianist with a repertoire that reached from Beethoven to folk songs, an inspired — and inspiring — teller of bed-time stories, a life-long learner and knower of, almost, everything, an active citizen, and, yes, did I mention the Nobel Prize in Economics at age 90?

And Leo Hurwicz achieved all of this in spite of — or should we say, because of — the times of existential peril through which he and his extended family lived. These can perhaps be best encapsulated by quoting some of the titles of the 29 chapters of his narrative: “1939, sierpień/août/August,” “Born a Refugee,” “Crisis, Coup, Catastrophe,” “Brown Shirts and Ghetto Benches,” “Hurwiczes on the Run,” “Surprise Attack,” “Blood, Fire, Smoke, Exile, and Human Kindness.”

These chapter headings, and of course the narratives, of those chapters,  give us a sense of the historical context of this remarkable life, these remarkable achievements. It is a context of revolutions, wars, antisemitism, persecution, and genocide. But it is also a context of resistance, persistence, ingenuity, courage, and creativity, of humanity in the face of barbarism.

So, when Michael Hurwicz, at the end of his epilogue says this: “I only hope you got half as much satisfaction from reading it as I did from writing it (140)” the answer is an emphatic “YES.”

Michael Hurwicz’s Leonid Hurwicz: Intelligent Designer: How War and the Great Depression Inspired a Nobel Economist can be obtained through Darvill’s Bookstore and will soon be available from the Orcas Library, where a book launch event will be held on Wednesday, May 31, 5-6:30pm.

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