Reading business books

I was on a red eye flight from San Francisco back to Philadelphia sometime in late 2000. I had just attended a meeting or conference or something and had received a complimentary copy of Guy Kawasaki’s latest book, Rules for Revolutionaries. Unable to sleep, I opened it up. It was the last business book I read for five years.

The bust was in full swing, our company was already two layoffs into the blood letting, and I was tired of red eyes (both the flights and the ones that require drops). With apologies to Mr. Kawasaki (maybe it’s a great book), the phrase “Create like a God, work like a slave” was just so out of synch with my mood that I put the book in the seat back pocket and left it there.

Many business books are power point dreck in book form. I don’t know if this one was since I never actually read it, but with that line it became my business book last straw. I promised right then and there that I was never going to read another business book, and for five years I didn’t. Eventually, about a year ago, I had to amend that rule to be practical, but I mostly I only read business books in the office or while in hotel rooms while on business trips.

I have always been a reader so the next day I bought a pocket edition of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and started reading classics, non-fiction, and novels with renewed vigor.

Which brings me to today. What a great decision that was (thank you Guy; seriously). As I scan my shelves for just some of the books that I’ve read in five years I’m really astonished at the scope of the titles that I’ve managed to read in that period (though perhaps they could benefit from some increased diversity). More importantly, I’m gratified with the impact that they have had on my thinking and understanding. They have changed the way I see the world.

This is some of what I can see from where I’m sitting:

Literature and novels from Nabokov (Ada, or Ardor, The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading), Graham Greene (The Quiet American, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair), Ellis (Invisible Man), Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Air Conditioned Nightmare), Anais Nin (Henry and June, Children of the Albatross), Salman Rushdie (Shame, Fury, Midnight’s Children), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Chekhov (Stories), Dostoevsky (The Brother’s Karamazov), James Joyce (Portrait of the Artist), Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and Into the Trees, Islands in the Stream, Death in the Afternoon, By-Line, The Dangerous Summer, A Moveable Feast, The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War), Helprin (Winters Tale, Soldier of the Great War, Memoirs from Ant Proof Case, Freddy and Fredericka, The Pacific, Refiner’s Fire), Dos Passos (Three Soldiers), Hurston (Their Eyes were Watching God), David Foster Wallace (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, Namesake), Gopnick (Paris to the Moon), Yoshimura (One Man’s Justice), Plath (The Bell Jar), Sontag (On Photography, Death Kit), Makine (Dreams of My Russian Summers, Once Upon the River Amour) Arthur Phillips (Prague), Markham (West with the Night), Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park), Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), Roy (The God of Small Things), Martin (Picasso’s War), Rich (We Took to the Woods), Fitzgerald (The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby), Stendhal (The Charterhouse of Parma), Ha Jin (War Trash, Crazed, Waiting), Gibson (Pattern Recognition) Stephenson (Cryptonomicon), Grossman (Life and Fate), Robert Adams (Why People Photograph, Beauty in Photography, Along Some Rivers), Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams), …

History, Biography, and non-fiction including Orwell (Homage to Catalonia, various essays), Oren (Six Days War), Menand (The Metaphysical Club), Whelans (Blood and Champagne – on Capa), Li Zhi-Sui (The Private Life of Mao), Montefiore (Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar), John McPhee (The Founding Fish, Looking for a Ship, The Control of Nature, La Place de la Concorde Suisse, The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, The Crofter and the Laird, The Pine Barrens, The Curve of Binding Energy), Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickled and Dimed), Tamarov (Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier’s Story), Beevor (The Battle for Spain), Mitter (A Bitter Revolution), Molavi (Persian Pilgrimages), Seal (A Fez of the Heart), Elliot (An Unexpected Light, Travels in Afghanistan), Solomon (The Noonday Demon), Carroll (War Letters), Bayles and Orland (Art & Fear),…

In addition I read everything about photography I could get my hands on (way too many to list here), all of the non-fiction in the New Yorker, and some of the fiction.

Five years is a long time and my Kawasaki-induced promise to myself was feeling a bit out of date. “You have to sharpen the sword after all” I thought to myself as I put a copy of Spin Selling on my nightstand last week. However, today after looking over my bookshelves and re-introducing myself to the last five years of titles, I think I’ll throw Spin Selling in my backpack and just read it in the office.

Comments

  1. Yasmine - February 10, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    Nice post. I think I’ve heard less of these titles than the ones in that site 🙂

    Would you change your mind if you were in a different space? E.g. I’m immersed in the startup world and constantly hear about Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start, Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and the list goes on and on…If I don’t read these books, I would not be able to converse intelligently with other entrepreneurs and VCs or apply their concepts to my own startup. I’ve read some business books that were useless and others that have opened my eyes to new approaches.

    If you could pick one, which novel would you suggest for me from your list above? 🙂

  2. Jim Stogdill - February 10, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    I’m going to ignore your comment that these are even more obscure than business books. 🙂 “Would you change your mind if you were in a different space?” Hmm… well, if I was a doctor I suppose I would have to read medical journals.

    Seriously, probably not. I think I’ve gotten so much more over the course of my life reading a wide range of things than I would have if I had been reading professional stuff all the time.

    The books you mention are great examples. You’re right, you need to be conversant with them to be able to sound credible doing your job. But most of those books have one simple thesis and really don’t require you to read the entire thing to understand it – too often they’re bloated magazine articles in book form. I haven’t read any of those three books, but I bet I could hold my own in a conversation about them. Or at least fake it. 🙂

    But that’s definitely not the case for Nabokov or Greene. They are a joy to read with pleasure in the voice, pace, feel, prose, rhythm, and most importantly, the wealth of human wisdom they capture. You start to feel like, in any situation, you’ve seen it before. These books have become reference points in my memories. They are my friends and advisors.

    Really though, I’m not saying “don’t read professional books.” I’m just saying that at that moment on that plane I just found myself so sick of reading silly power point presentations in book format that I decided I was going to look elsewhere. I’m really glad I did.

    Hmmm…. picking one to recommend is really tough. If you’re used to reading business books I’ll have to ease you into it. 🙂 Ok, I know, I’m going to say Their Eyes were Watching God by Hurston.

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