He's no master of suspense, but generations of college students have learned Paul Samuelson's name from his enduring text "Economics."
With more than 4 million copies in 41 languages, his primer has reached more than 7 million people worldwide over the past 50 years."I knew it was a good book, but what I didn't realize would be its lasting power," said Samuelson, a graduate of the University of Chicago and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in economics. "Fifty years is a long time for a book to be around in a dynamic subject like economics."
Samuelson's "Economics" has been acclaimed for its conversational and uncondescending style in explaining macroeconomics, the theory of how forces work together to allow some economies to collapse and others to flourish.
To read the book "is to have a glimpse of the extraordinary mind that created it: undogmatic, encyclopedic, brilliant and, most remarkably, skeptical - not inclined to take it too seriously," said Stan Fischer, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
The book and its 15 subsequent updates (later editions co-authored by Yale professor William Nordhaus) employ economic and historical situations, charts and graphs to illustrate theories of economics that leave some thirsting for more information, others struggling to stay awake.
It had a humble beginning. Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were required to take economics in their junior year, but none of the books available could hold their attention.
Samuelson was given the job of "just writing an interesting book, something they'll like."
"My job was to make it understandable and enjoyable, and in doing that it changed the coverage tremendously," said Samuelson, 83. "I think economics - and this is what I've tried to impart - has a tremendous amount of human interest in it. I've made an effort to make it readable so you can sort of get it at the first reading of a sentence.
"There are lavish uses of dialogue and color - all the things that are important to a student at 11 o'clock at night."
Samuelson is quick to note that the book has been far from perfect. "The first one had too much emphasis on fiscal policy over monetary policy," he said.
And critics have noted he remained an admirer of the Soviet socioeconomic system virtually up to its collapse.
But his admirers far outnumber critics.
"I can't go anywhere in the world but when I meet somebody who says `I've used your book,' " said Samuelson, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. "I used to find it an awkward moment and not know what to say, but then I came up with the perfect reply: "Well, Mrs. Samuelson would be pleased."'