On “Having and Being Had”

4 min readAug 8, 2023

I read the first half of this book being annoyed about it. The author, Eula Biss, takes on big and important economics questions, like “what is capitalism”, but often doesn’t answer them — at least to my satisfaction. As someone who reads and is interested in economics, it was just frustrating. More generally, there was also just an awful lot of white-lady guilt in the text. Which is fine and I totally relate. But, it’s also tedious, self-indulgent, and cringe.

“Having and Being Had” by Eula Biss

But reading on, I had to unpack myself. Why does it bother me that she’s not answering big questions of economics? She never said she would. This is her book and her approach on these issues. Should’nt I listen to what she’s saying rather than finding the fault in it? It took me a while, but I had to reset myself to read it how she wrote it, not how I wish she did.

In that way, I come to admire her and enjoy the book, her ambiguity. I recognize myself in her struggles; the same ethical and identity questions I wrestle with. Wrestling with privilege, hypocrisy, empathy, values, and living within systems you don’t support, and don’t fully understand. She takes on topics or concerns: consumers, work, affluence. And she reads on them, but not as an economist. She’s more a moral observer, trying to make a human sense out of the inhumanity of capitalism. She tries to do it with honesty and self reflection: “I decided that if I was going to learn anything from writing a book about money, I was going to have to use the actual figures involved, and I was going to have to face honestly what I had.”

Through the course of the book she reads many of the economic “greats”… Galbraith, Marx, to try to come to terms with her own feelings about her own situation. She does research and explores history: about the author of Monopoly, about artists, about Emily Dickenson, Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf, and about their servants. I found this research wonderfully eye-opening and learned about people and artists I’d never come across. She’s become middle class, a home-owner, a mom, financially stable. She’s maybe a gentrifier in her neighborhood. She not elite, but also not proletarian. She’s a cyclist. She’s a gardener. She’s white.

It’s the wrestling that’s interesting and fun. She doesn’t actually resolve anything in the book; except maybe that she decides to quit her job teaching and write full-time with a book advance. But she reads, and talks to friends, and observes on her own life and others’, on art and artists as they also wrestle with money and value and time.

Money, and value, and time. Time is money. Money is value. Values are felt and meant to be acted upon. She does that kind of word-play a lot and she’s good at it. It’s evocative, provocative. It’s a good read; unsatisfying, but sympathetic.

“The house isn’t mine. I don’t own it so much as a I take care of it…I have the sense that all of this — the brick the roses climb, the lath and plaster, the copper pipes, the oak floors, the coal room, the cracked slab on which it all rests — is a gift. Not to me, but to the future. The house is just passing through my hands. It’s a not a purchase, it’s a husbandry.” (p. 29)

The latter is also a good understanding of capitalism — that the owners of capital benefit, but also husband their capital to grow and maintain it. This isn’t exactly fair or right. But it’s what it is.

“A bicycle in traffic must be predictive to the point of clairvoyance, must know the cars better than the cars know themselves, must understand their motivations and their common blunders. Cars don’t always signal their intentions. and cars aren’t always nice to each other, though they usually show each other some respect in deference o the damage they can do to each other. They are like important men in conversation with other important mean. Bicycles are sometimes kindly accommodated by cars, often ignored, occasionally respected, sometimes nervously followed, and frequently not even seen. In this sense, riding in traffic is not unlike being a woman among men.” (p. 248)

I especially appreciated that her book included some notes and sources. The notes are interesting in explaining her methods and rules in writing the book — and the short essays which comprise it. I feel like I want to read the book again now that I’ve read her own explanation — although it might seem to formulaic, or maybe like a writing exercise, if I did. But her explanation was endearing to me and revealing and I really appreciated it.

By the end of the book, I was inspired. I learned a lot — because Biss introduced me to a lot of artists and thinkers. And she helped remind me that economics is a kind of science, but that our relationship to the science matters and is worth dwelling upon, and can change, should change. Biss ability and willingness to hold herself at a distance from her own comfort, to consider it, to critique it, to make it strange, is an inspiration. Life, even in enjoyment, is worth considering.





I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.