For value investing? The Intelligent Investor and Security Analysis. For management? Anything by Peter Drucker and the the latest issue of Harvard Business Review. For strategy? Michael Porter and Jim Collins. For sales and marketing? Customers For Life and Made To Stick.
And then there are the many hundreds of biographies, auto-biographies and memoirs of business heroes. And other historical figures.
Oh, we could argue about those recommendations. We could easily add 20 or 100 titles.
But this isn't about non-fiction. My students and clients already read — and my faculty colleagues already assign — enough non-fiction.
This is about business fiction.
What are the books of fiction that every business person should read?
In my quest to teach liberal arts to business people, I'd like to teach a course on Truth In Jest: The Fictional Legends Every Business Person Should Know.
This course would ensure that the participants are more than literate. They could claim Business Literacy.
The list starts plainly enough.
These titles start to answer the question: "What does any well read business person have on the shelf — and in mind and soul?"
Books: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
Movies: Tin Men and House of Games
What titles would you add? What's essential for Business Literacy?
I do. Here's why I care.
When I was 22 years old, my boss and I were scheduled to meet the Big Client at the 21 Club for dinner.
My boss was stuck in late afternoon Manhattan traffic. So there I was: alone with the client.
"What should we do?" I asked Big Client.
"Let's wait in the bar," he said.
Forty-five minutes later, after my boss arrived, we sat for dinner. My boss asked Big Client, "So how did Artie do?" I was a very new guy at the office and leaving me alone with the client was foolhardy.
"Artie? Oh, he did great," said Big Client. "Anyone can learn your business. But few young people can stand at the bar for a half hour and chat with the client."
Business fiction can make that possible.
After I posted the "Business Fiction," I received the following, thoughtful email from Joe Sperry. (Thanks, Joe.) He permitted me to copy this for you:
Coming from the liberal art side of things, I can think of a number of business fictions, two of which I would not force anyone to read. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is the one that is perfect for English teachers (speaking as a former one) to gleefully show the limitations of business. The second is Joseph Heller’s Something Happened—the book he wrote after Catch-22. Something Happened is the story of a man living in terror at a corporation with awful bosses and after 900 pages or so (hyperbole) what happens is that his infant son dies. As you can imagine, sales were not great, especially for those expecting another Catch-22.
In one Shakespeare class I took, I do remember the professor discussing the leadership styles of various focal characters. Hamlet—awful, but Othello decent—there is a scene where he comes in and his men are dueling to the death ( I.ii.59) and he simply says: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them." Not everyone could stop a fight thus. Julius Caesar was presented as the leader driven by ambition and reason—the Gordon Gecko of Roman times. I always thought there was an interesting course here. I’d be tempted to include Lady Macbeth in it.
If I had to choose a great business novel, it might be Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which I reread several summers ago. The parallels with today’s business are frightening. Although it’s two very long books so I don’t know if a businessperson would read it. If there is a great business novel, I do not know it. Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt maybe or Dodsworth—the movie remains a wonderful thirties classic—one of Walter Huston’s greatest roles.
I don't know about you, but I find Joe's business literacy to be humbling. Way to go, Joe!
I think the syllabus might be full.