Wall Street Journal Reviews “Playfair”

William Playfair is best known today as a Scottish adventurer of questionable repute who happened to invent “statistical graphics”—the line, bar, and pie charts familiar today. Some may be aware of his theories explaining trade and investment, or his contributions to concepts like price indexes and measures of national power. Even those familiar with his work, however, will be surprised to learn that Playfair was, in fact, a secret agent. Working for top British officials, Playfair planned and executed clandestine operations against the radicalized French Republic. He may have changed the course of the French Revolution; he most certainly transformed statistics, economics, and strategic analysis.

In PLAYFAIR: The True Story of the British Secret Agent Who Changed How We See the World (January 2018), author Bruce Berkowitz uncovers the exploits of this remarkable, colorful man and his most audacious project—an operation to wreck the French economy with counterfeit money. Combining Internet Age methodologies with old-fashioned detective work, Berkowitz proves Playfair’s role in this long-rumored operation.

The Wall Street Journal published a review of Playfair in the paper’s Saturday-Sunday, January 13-14, 2018 edition. Reviewer Richard Davenport-Hines calls the book “a work of ingenious detection and reconstruction.”

Other excerpts from the review include:

“In addition to being a draftsman, inventor, company promoter, land speculator, economist, patriotic pamphleteer and bank-note counterfeiter, Playfair was a secret agent and international conspirator. He used his network of contacts to become a pioneer provider of “all-source” intelligence. He was adept at ducking and weaving from the truth, covering his tracks, mystifying his motives, and protecting his sources.”

Line chart by Playfair: Commercial and Political Atlas, 1786
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Mr. Berkowitz’s fascinating visuals show how pie charts, bar graphs, trend lines and suchlike were developed and popularized by Playfair.”

“Mr. Berkowitz’s precision extends to his punctuation, which will delight old-style grammarians who like to see commas and colons used plentifully, and also correctly.”

“Mr. Berkowitz compares Playfair to Forrest Gump, but this frenetic optimist, both crafty and unlucky, who although constantly ambushed and battered by events, irrepressibly sprang back from his bad breaks, is more likely a cartoon character. He was the Wile E. Coyote of his age.”